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Working to Reduce Cancer Disparities and Fulfilling Childhood Dreams

Jennifer Cunningham Erves, Ph.D., M.P.H., M.A.Ed., M.S., CHES

Assistant Professor of Research, Department of Internal Medicine, Meharry Medical College


Jennifer Cunningham Erves

Jennifer Cunningham Erves, 
Ph.D., M.P.H., M.A.Ed., M.S.,

Improving cancer health disparities has always been a childhood dream of mine. As a doctoral student, I conducted a mixed-methods study with African American (AA) mothers on their intentions to vaccinate their daughters for human papillomavirus (HPV). I proceeded to do a postdoctoral fellowship in community engagement, in which I did a survey of parental willingness to allow their child to participate in HPV vaccine clinical trials. During this time, I transitioned to assistant professor at Meharry Medical College and set a career goal to become an independent researcher who makes a significant contribution to the field of public health oncology, focusing on cancer prevention behaviors and the reduction of cancer disparities.

In 2015, I identified research mentors and applied for and received an NCATS diversity supplement under the Vanderbilt Institute for Clinical and Translational Research Grant. This award allowed me to gain clinical and translational science training to increase the reach and relevance of my work. I was immersed in didactic training to learn more about foundational concepts related to clinical research. I also took coursework at Vanderbilt University (e.g., clinical trials, grant writing, statistics), worked on my mentors’ projects and networked at conferences to gain practical clinical research experience. This entire experience allowed me to view the research process with a new perspective.

While I engaged in didactic training, I also was involved in practical research to promote my understanding of clinical and translational science. My research identified immunization stakeholder views (AA families, providers, pharmacists, and school and health department staff) about alternative settings—pharmacies, health departments and schools—to increase HPV vaccine rates. This work provided preliminary data to extend this research as a Vanderbilt Patient-Centered Outcomes Research (PCOR) Career Knowledge, Education, and Training (K12) Scholar. My research elicited the opinions of AA families on the needs and preferences in decision-making regarding HPV vaccination. Findings from both studies indicated AA families prefer the medical home to alternative settings to receive the HPV vaccine, and the vaccine-hesitant families differ in educational needs and channels for HPV, cancer and vaccine education. During this time, I was selected as a Leading Emerging and Diverse Scientists to Success Fellow (2016–2017) and an Expanding National Capacity in PCOR through Training Fellow (2017–2018) to gain the skills to launch my research career.

More recently, I applied for a National Institutes of Health (NIH) K01 grant, with continued support from my mentors, using the data from the supplement and my internal K12 award. This award would allow me to learn more about behavioral intervention development for cancer prevention using health communication and designing clinical trials to assess the efficacy of interventions to promote HPV vaccination for cancer prevention. My initial application did not get a priority score for funding; however, my resubmission received a significantly higher score.

Overall, the diversity supplement provided the foundation for me to secure my non-tenure-track faculty position, obtain my internal K12 award and extend my work to apply for and receive favorable reviews for my K01 application. All minority investigators should pursue these opportunities with a committed mentoring team to serve as “stepping stones” for career development.

Current Research

My research experiences have yielded an extensive knowledge base and skillset in biology, public health and community engagement. Through my current research agenda, I seek to develop and implement a tailored health communication intervention to increase HPV vaccination among children of vaccine-hesitant parents.

I am using a community-engaged research approach to understand health communication strategies and their effect on vaccine-hesitant parental decision-making for HPV vaccination. This work promotes translational research by developing a behavioral intervention that potentially could be identified as an evidence-based practice to promote HPV vaccination among vaccine-hesitant parents.