Advancing Health Equity through Research: Announcing the 2023 Awardees of the Jeffress Trust Program

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The Jeffress Trust has announced the 2023 recipients of its Awards Program in Research Advancing Health Equity. Congratulations to the awardees!

Below, we share highlights about each of the awardees. For full awardee project descriptions, click here.

Partnership/Collaborative Establishment Awards

Impact of Medical-Legal Partnership (MLP) Collaborative Upon Social Determinants of Health of Low-Income Individuals in Rural Southwest Virginia

headshot of Dr. Matthew Loos

Dr. Matthew Loos

Matthew Loos, MD, FACS, MBA
Ballad Health, in partnership with Appalachian School of Law – Virginia Tech – STRONG Accountable Care Community

Despite the establishment of numerous MLPs throughout the U.S., there are few published studies on the impact of MLPs on healthcare and outcomes. This collaborative project establishes an Advisory Council to collectively study and develop MLP best practices for programmatic and coordinated community response. We anticipate the data will illuminate how health-harming legal needs are impacted through MLP intervention with free legal services to address social determinants of health (SDOH).



Centering Black Voices: An Exploration Of Current And Historical Black Breastfeeding Experiences In Their Own Words

Sara Rothenberg, MPH
Eastern Virginia Medical School, in partnership with The Consortium for Infant and Child Health – SonShine and Rainbows Lactation – From the Start Holistic Doula Services – #757Breastfeeds

The project seeks to address and uproot structural racism that underpins maternal and child health inequities by centering Black voices, building community capacity, and decolonizing breastfeeding research.  Through sustainable, respectful collaboration, this project will lay the groundwork for future research, publication, and more effective public health strategies for advancing maternal child health equity.

headshots of Sara Rothenberg, Jasmine Kittrell, Nichelle Clark, Tierra Lingsley

(Project team, L to R: Sara Rothenberg, Jasmine Kittrell, Nichelle Clark, Tierra Lingsley)

Advancing Health Equity through a Regional Coalition for Reducing Opioid and Substance Use


headshot of Dr. Shuntay Z. Tarver

Dr. Shuntay Z. Tarver

Shuntay Z. Tarver, PhD, MSW
Old Dominion University, in partnership with African American Creative Community Series – James Barry Robinson Institute – Hampton-Newport News Community Services Board

There is a critical need in Virginia to reduce opioid and substance use (O/SU) and overdose related deaths. The project seeks to advance health equity with the development of a culturally-informed, data-driven regional coalition. The desired outcome is to decrease O/SU and overdose-related deaths among Black and low-income families within the cities of Norfolk, Hampton, and Newport News, VA.

headshots of Tamika Lett, Latiesha Handle, Chaniece Winfield, and Jason Sawyer

(Project team, L to R: Tamika Lett, Latiesha Handle, Chaniece Winfield, Jason Sawyer)






Research Awards

Keep People Covered: Analyzing the Medicaid Unwinding and Redetermination Process through a Person-Centered, Racial Equity Lens

Freddy Mejia
The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, in partnership with Sacred Heart Center – Peter Paul Development Center – Virginia Poverty Law Center – Virginia Community Voice

headshot of Freddy Mejia

Freddy Mejia

In April 2023, Virginia will begin to review all Medicaid enrollees’ eligibility, a process called “unwinding” and start ending coverage for those found ineligible. The unwinding process will require enrollees to update contact information and submit all required paperwork in a timely fashion. Caught in the middle of this process are approximately 160,000 individuals and families who remain eligible but are most at risk of losing coverage because of administrative hurdles and/or language access issues. The current administration in Virginia has not shared its posture on the Medicaid redetermination process. This is concerning to advocates due to national research from the Department of Health and Human Services. Research estimates children, Black, and Latino individuals are most likely to be disenrolled while still being eligible for coverage.

At the core of this project are three goals:

  • First, through research and analysis, act as a watchdog that brings accountability and an equity focused lens on a complex process that may leave individuals and families uninsured on account of technicalities.
  • Second, drive education efforts to help as many people as possible weather the “unwinding” storm and preserve their health insurance.
  • Third, leverage the research to change systems to improve the current redetermination process in the moment and create better health access programs, processes, and communications in the future.

Using a participatory research approach combined with analysis of data from EnrollVA and state agencies, and advocacy action we can achieve both meaningful research findings and changes in public policies. We plan to create and maintain a real-time dashboard that can inform decisions during the three year period. Additionally, we will disseminate findings with strategic communications and coordinate with our partners including members of the Collective Work coalition focused on racial justice and the Health Equity Action Leaders program.

Uncovering Immune Inflammatory Axes of Racial Disparities Linked with Gestational Weight Gain in Pregnant Women

Sepideh Dolatshahi, PhD
University of Virginia

headshot of Dr. Sepideh Dolatshahi

Dr. Sepideh Dolatshahi

Obese Black women experience an increased risk of inadequate Gestational Weight Gain (iGWG) compared to White women within the same BMI groups. Importantly, obesity and iGWG are both associated with adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth, which in turn predispose the newborn to a myriad of early-life health complications. As such, concurrent higher prevalence of iGWG and obesity in non-Hispanic Black women points to distinct profiles of Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) that separately drive these risk factors to birth disparities.

The proposed study aims to dissect these two hypothesized distinct pathways of racial disparities from the root/trunk (SDoH) to the middle branches (perturbed baseline immunity and the immune remodeling) to the outer leaves (adverse clinical outcomes) of the tree. While sparse attempts to stratify the contributors to obesity and iGWG as they relate to pregnancy outcomes have been published, these studies are essentially lacking in the Virginia. Moreover, African Americans have been underrepresented in immunological studies of pregnancy.

To address these limitations, we will use innovative systems biology and data-driven statistical modeling approaches to examine a unique cohort of racially diverse pregnant women of Virginia. By combining SDoH information with high-plex maternal and placental measurements, we anticipate that we will identify novel social and immune axes that may inform the design of preventative, diagnostic, and therapeutic strategies that will improve pregnancy outcomes.

the Trust

The Thomas F. and Kate Miller Jeffress Memorial Trust, founded in 1981 by Robert M. Jeffress in memory of his parents, is guided by its mission to benefit the people of Virginia and their research in chemical, medical, or other scientific fields. Since its founding, the Jeffress Memorial Trust has been a steadfast benefactor in support of scientists and research across the state of Virginia supporting mathematical modeling/simulations and analytics in bioinformatics, astrophysics, mathematical biology, drug development, and material science. To further the mission of the Jeffress Trust to benefit the people of Virginia, the program was changed in 2022 to the Jeffress Trust Awards Program in Research Advancing Health Equity.