“Health equity is a significant initiative that’s very important to me,” Brinkley said. “In terms of my legacy, I just wanted to be remembered as someone who was collaborative, but also for challenging assumptions about people who are not well represented, or people who are not given a ‘place at the table.’ I want to be remembered for being courageous when I should have been.”
In her new role as a HRI’s Research Director for Health Initiatives, Dr. Brinkley is currently spearheading a team science initiative with Dr. Fatima Merchant. The team science approach helps nurture collaboration across multi-disciplinary teams throughout University of Houston.
“Looking at team science specifically, when there hasn’t been cross disciplinary cooperation, there are blind spots,” Brinkley said. “A lot of times, there are issues that could be addressed more efficiently--a lot more quickly if there was collaboration. The multi-disciplinary approach was very attractive to me. When people are working in their silos, things get missed. The more perspectives we have, the better.”
Dedicating her career to public health, Brinkley has a passion for health equity and empowering diverse communities to share their voice and lived experiences. A recent addition to the HEALTH Research Institute team, Brinkley holds a Master of Public Health degree from Yale University and a Doctor of Philosophy in Public Health from the University of Connecticut.
“You see a lot of disparities and health equity issues that need to be addressed,” Brinkley said. “It’s important to understand all the dynamics at the community level. I want the research to be impactful. I don’t want it to be pretty research that sits on a shelf. I want the research to be translated into something that will actually help people.”
One of Brinkley’s most pivotal achievements in her career as a public health practitioner was her work to build a credentialing model for community health workers in Connecticut as an advisory board member for the State of Connecticut’s Office of Health Strategy.
“At the time, we were developing a credentialing model for community health workers in Connecticut,” Brinkley said. “I’m proud of that achievement. The heart of community health work is to truly understand the community and who the community will trust. Just credentialing people alone is not enough. A lot of community health workers will navigate systems, but it is about trust, and understanding and cultural humility. We ended up landing on a credentialing system that struck a good balance.”
For Brinkley, the collaborative work with HEALTH-RCMI to improve health equity is incredibly personal and important. A native of St. Lucia, Brinkley is attuned to the immigrant experience and passionate about addressing health disparities.
“My perspective is from an immigrant experience which always makes you aware of the times you have privilege and the time you don’t,” Brinkley added. “There are subtle dynamics that give you a broad perspective, and I’m always considering whose voice is not being heard in the room. I’m sensitive to that, and that’s why disparities-related topics interest me--Who is voiceless in the room? Whose voice is absent in the room? Power dynamics fascinate me.”
Delving into the deeper aspects of team science and what the multi-disciplinary approaches can bring inspires Brinkley.
“Dr. Merchant and I have reviewed the NIHMD strategic priorities, and a lot of them are health equity focused—health issues like HIV, Cancer, Substance Abuse,” Brinkley said. “One of our priorities is really being intentional about getting teams together from multiple disciplines--teams of 3-4 researchers and different disciplines. We want to be intentional about designing research to address specific issues. This will add a layer of depth to the existing research where you have more perspectives. A big part of the initiative is to identify ways to support investigators who are interested in collaborating with each other, helping them navigate some of these other issues and dynamics, especially when you have junior and senior researchers.”
Brinkley offers a message of encouragement to early-stage investigators who wish to devote their career to health equity.
“If you really want your research to be impactful, joining a team like HEALTH-RCMI allows you to really engage with people who are like-minded, in terms of having that same orientation, in terms of wanting to change their world, wanting their research to make a difference,” Brinkley said. “It’s a wonderful place to engage with other researchers and with everyone else who is passionate about the research. It’s also a place to truly experiment with new perspectives, new ideas, try new things, and use that to work with other people to do impactful work that will really move the needle.”
When Brinkley reflects on her life and career trajectory, she remembers how one chemistry teacher in high school challenged her, and how the invitation to grow and succeed made all the difference.
“I will push when it’s needed, and I hope that I will be remembered for making a difference,” Brinkley said. “I admire people who are brave in the face of adversity. When people do the ‘hard things’, that takes heart.”
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Interview Opportunities: Dr. Ashika Brinkley