KU wins $11M federal grant to create new center focusing on the key data behind women’s health

photo by: Ann Smith/KU

The following KU faculty members have been named as research leaders or directors at KU's new center focusing biomedical data and women's health. Pictured from left: Amber Watts, Liz Coleman, Jarron Saint Onge, Donna Ginther, Meredith Hartley, Beth Benfield and Heather Desaire.

KU has won an $11.3 million federal grant to start a new research center focused on improving women’s health through the analysis of reams of data.

The National Institutes of Health recently awarded the University of Kansas the multimillion-dollar grant to establish a new biomedical research excellence center. The center will use what researchers call “big data” to examine trends, incidence rates and other statistics that may ultimately help medical professionals understand, for example, why multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and several others are more prevalent in women than men.

“We’re going to leverage big data to improve women’s health,” said Heather Desaire, a chemistry professor and chair who will serve as the center’s director. “All of the research projects within the center will have a component of using large data sets or machine learning, and an application area related to women’s health in some way — especially looking at health disparities that women incur.”

The new center also will employ two other chemistry professors, but additionally will include faculty members from psychology, sociology and public affairs, according to a KU press release. The grant funding also will allow KU to hire three new faculty members for the departments of chemistry, sociology and psychology.

KU’s psychology department is in the midst of creating a new data science curriculum that teaches students how to gather, handle and analyze large amounts of data. The psychology department is expected to provide students who will aid in studying the various health topics tackled by the center.

Those topics are expected to be broad, but will include several that researchers see frequently in Kansas. Those include the fact that many medical databases struggle to provide much information about rural women, given that many clinical trials happen at hospitals based in large cities.

“If you live out in western Kansas, the chances of you participating in those types of things are smaller,” Desaire said.

Figuring out how that disparity impacts the health data will be a task the center tackles.

The center also will be tasked with studying issues around telemedicine, as researchers recognize that form of health care is particularly important in rural settings.

The grant also is expected to result in a new KU-based laboratory that will be used by researchers at the center but also will be made available to other medical research efforts at KU and in the private sector. The NIH funding will support the creation of the Biomedical Datasets and Services Core Lab. The laboratory will provide technical support to researchers who are trying to mine information from very large datasets.

That new dataset laboratory will be part of KU’s Institute for Policy & Social Research, and will be run by Donna Ginther, a KU economist who is the director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research.

KU won the more than $11 million in grant funding through a special NIH program that is designed to distribute federal funding in states that historically have received smaller shares of NIH research grant funding.


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