Department of Sociology

  • Study shows greater increase in depression and anxiety in minorities during the pandemic

    While the mental health of many Americans worsened during the pandemic, a recent UAB study found the increase in depression and anxiety symptoms was greatest within Black, Hispanic and Asian communities.

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  • Four faculty share the stories behind their development grants

    A civil rights field experience, safer MRI scans, investigating college stress and implementing a massive genetic test for cancer: Recipients of 2022 Faculty Development Grant Program awards explain how they will use their funds.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects at UAB

    The grant program funds early-career faculty to advance their skills and careers across campus and beyond.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects

    The UAB Faculty Development Grant Program supports junior faculty with funding to pursue research, creative works and scholarly activity.

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  • How the COVID-19 pandemic changed society

    COVID-19 changed the way we communicate, care for others, educate our children, work and more. Experts from UAB weigh in on these changes.

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  • Seven students receive 2022 Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate and Graduate Students

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students.

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students. The dean’s selection committee gives these awards to exceptional undergraduate and graduate students in the College who have made significant contributions to the UAB community.

    After carefully reviewing the 2022 nominations—which include detailed recommendation letters from faculty members and mentors—Dean Kecia M. Thomas, Ph.D., and her committee have selected four undergraduate students and three graduate students for the awards. At the upcoming 2022 commencement ceremonies, the College will acknowledge and celebrate the recipients.

    Congratulations to the following students for receiving this prestigious award:

    2022 Undergraduate Dean’s Awards

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    2022 Graduate Dean’s Awards

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  • A New Day: Navigating a pandemic and looking to the future

    Arts and Sciences faculty gather to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

    From left to right, Shahid Mukhtar, Kecia M. Thomas, Verna Keith, Rich Gere, Lauren Rast, and David Chan. Photo by Nik Layman.There is an ebb and flow to the world that stretches across the centuries. Breakdowns are followed by breakthroughs. Desolation sparks inspiration. Harsh reality is softened by imaginative artistry.  And so, the plague of the 14th century led to the revival of the Renaissance. The flu pandemic of 1918-19 was followed by the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties. And the horrors of World War II were replaced by an outpouring of aesthetic creativity and scientific advancement. 

    The world stands at the edge of another historic transition, as we emerge slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic. As difficult as the past 18 months have been (and the immediate future still appears to be), this is not unprecedented territory. There have always been challenging events to endure. And yet, the world somehow has always recovered, usually with a big assist from the arts and sciences. 

    “The humanities are going to be needed when the pandemic is over,” said David Chan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy. “One of the things you’re finding nowadays is that people need to find meaning… because it all seems so random. That’s where literature, art, philosophy all come in. They help people cope with change and disasters.” 

    “How do you tell a story about all this so it helps [people] find meaning? These are questions that are being addressed in every branch of the humanities, and that’s where [the College of Arts and Sciences] brings something,” said Chan. 

    Or as Rich Gere, MFA, professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, says, “Historically, if you look at resilience within community, after every major disaster, [society] looks to the arts to bring it back. Right after the first responders, the second responders are artists.” 

    It is a daunting task, but one that the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is ready to handle. In August 2021, Dean Kecia M. Thomas, brought together five members of the College to discuss the challenges of the previous year, and the opportunities that are on the horizon. 

    Even this roundtable was affected by the ongoing pandemic, as the late-summer surge in COVID-19 cases led to the scheduled in-person gathering being changed to a Zoom meeting. Still, the participants expressed optimism about the future and acknowledged the way CAS has handled things so far.

    From left to right: David Chan, Rich Gere, and Verna Keith

    The past year

    Thomas took over as dean on Aug. 1, 2020. Not only did it mark a dramatic change in her life after spending the previous 27 years at the University of Georgia, but the move occurred in the midst of the pandemic.

    “This has been a really eventful year, and it’s not over,” Thomas said. “I’ve had to learn to give myself a little patience and grace as I’ve learned this new role in this new place in this new city.” 

    Of course, life changed for everybody last year in some way, and the key was to adapt to the situation. For CAS faculty, that included suddenly being required to teach students through remote learning. 

    “We had to learn the technology very quickly,” said Shahid Mukhtar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology. “CAS Information Technology helped us tremendously.” 

    “It actually made us better teachers in the classroom, because now we know how we can effectively communicate with our students even when we’re not present in the same place. And when we come back to campus, we can utilize some of those newly acquired skills.” 

    Indeed, the entire interaction between faculty and students has changed since the start of the pandemic. And, in an odd way, being apart actually helped bring both parties closer together. 

    “One of the things that I learned was how to talk to students on a different kind of level,” said Verna Keith, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. “Since I’m the chair, they’re expecting a certain kind of interaction. But when I had to call them at home and check on them during this pandemic because we hadn’t heard from them, it generated a totally different kind of conversation.” 

    “I realized that the position of chair when you’re in an office creates one kind of dynamic, but when you’re talking with somebody on the phone it created a different dynamic. They saw me in a different light, so we had a different kind of conversation.” 

    This, in turn, created a different kind of relationship. One in which the teachers also depended upon the students for their own grounding. 

    “I realized I get a sense of purpose from helping my students,” said Lauren Rast, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Physics. “Teaching them in ways that help their future and their careers. … It’s vital, not just for them but also for my own ability to maintain resilience.” 

    From left to right: Shahid Mukhtar, Lauren Rast, and Kecia Thomas

    Lessons learned

    One aspect of the Zoom experience that Dean Thomas enjoyed was the opportunity to see students and professional colleagues in a more relaxed atmosphere. 

    “So many people have apologized during Zoom meetings when a toddler or a cat walked through the background,” Thomas said. “But I love it, because we don’t often get the opportunity to remind each other of our humanity. That we are full, whole people beyond these very limited roles that we occupy. … That we have rich lives outside of work. That’s what I’m going to hold onto coming out of this pandemic.” 

    There also were professional positives to emerge from the remote approach. And in time, Gere said many of the early skeptics came to understand and appreciate those benefits. 

    “I had people who self-proclaimed that they are not technology people and can’t teach online,” Gere said. “About halfway through the semester last fall they said, ‘Thank you for forcing me to do this.’ … Some faculty thought it was going to be a train wreck of a semester, but they did really well.” 

    “One of the things I’ve also noticed is that everybody is always on time to a Zoom meeting. Thirty years in academia, I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

    In addition, the acceptance of remote learning has opened up a wider array of guest lecturers. Keith pointed out that it is much easier for somebody to devote 90 minutes of time to talking with a class through a Zoom meeting, as opposed to traveling to Birmingham and speaking in person. 

    “Zoom opened up a lot of avenues, because now we can expose our students to people all over the United States and internationally,” Keith said. “People have been generous about accepting engagements on Zoom. We’ve been able to bring some fairly prominent folks to talk to our students, and that’s probably going to continue.” 

    Despite the heavier reliance on technology, there remained opportunities to inject a human element into the teaching. Rast said she began opening every remote class by simply asking the students if they were doing OK. 

    Students in facemasks paint an outdoor mural at the UAB Solar House.

    “If you can humanize yourself, that helps you to connect,” said Rast. “It helps them to learn, but also to feel supported in the learning environment. I definitely plan to continue that.” 

    Beyond the pandemic

    While the response to COVID-19 dominated 2020, there were other important topics, including issues involving social justice and voting rights.  

    “Certainly, health and the pandemic are the biggest things on everyone’s mind,” Thomas said. “But there are also the issues of race and social justice, and what people are calling ‘the national reckoning.’” 

    “As we think about health, emerging technologies, and how we engage society—this issue of trying to establish an inclusive community and eradicate the injustices and inequities and disparities—how do the arts and sciences fit in with those [topics]? I think there is space for our disciplines to connect to all those areas.” 

    Keith said one element of community engagement already underway in Birmingham is the Live HealthSmart Alabama project, which was the winner of the inaugural UAB Grand Challenge. The goal of the project is to dramatically improve the state of Alabama’s health rankings by the year 2030. 

    Initially, the project consists of four demonstration communities, including one on the UAB campus. The UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center will work with the communities to promote nutrition, physical activity, and preventive wellness. 

    “This offers a lot of opportunities for different aspects of CAS to be involved,” Keith said. “Some of us are involved in the research side, but you can also be involved as a faculty member or a student. This is one of those things where we can build community engagement into our classes and also involve students in this worthwhile project.” 

    As for the overall social issues, Chan said the pandemic put a spotlight on the ways injustices and inequalities affect communities, providing relevant cases that can be used in coursework. 

    “One of my colleagues teaches a class in Family and Philosophy. She deals with issues about families and raising children,” Chan said. “We have students who are working mothers, and they can have problems taking classes. She found that the pandemic gave her examples she could use in class that students could relate to, because they were actually experiencing that in their lives.” 

    Career development and more

    While one of the primary purposes of higher education is to prepare students for a career, it also is a place where students learn about life itself.  

    “I do believe, of course, that our students should be prepared to pursue a career when they graduate. But I also think that our mission is a little bit broader, and we need to serve the whole person,” Thomas said.  

    The answer, once again, could involve community engagement. Mukhtar said he would like to see even more programs and workshops that showcase the engagement opportunities CAS has to offer, in order to help students determine the career path that might be best for them. 

    “Some kids are first-generation college students. Who can guide them? Where is the information? What are their (career) paths?” Mukhtar said. “We need ... to educate students from the ground up.” 

    One area of opportunity is in the field of data management. According to analysis by the Birmingham Business Alliance, data scientist jobs in the Birmingham region have increased by more than 45 percent over the past five years, and these positions on average pay 65 percent more (approximately $26,000 more annually) than jobs not requiring analysis skills. UAB is engaging in this growing field through the Magic City Data Collective, a partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation, with funding help through a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The goal is to bring local students, researchers, and data experts together to work on projects, enabling students to improve their analytics and computational skills. 

    “We recruited a really diverse student population, and in an interdisciplinary hands-on way these students were empowered to come up with results that were relevant to the city of Birmingham and will help make data-driven decisions for our community,” said Rast, who serves as the learning manager for the project. “When we have this information and locals are able to use data to make decisions and impact their community, that’s a positive thing we can do at the College of Arts and Sciences. It was my favorite thing that I’ve done all year.” 

    Looking ahead

    Dean Thomas wrapped up the hour-long discussion by asking each participant for a parting thought. Their messages indicated that despite all the difficulties of the past 18 months (and counting), their outlook remains optimistic, propelled in part by the determination of CAS and UAB as a whole to work together for a better future.  

    CHAN: “My message would be to build connections while you’re here, and stay connected after you leave. See what you can build here and then continue the relationships. This isn’t just some phase in a life—it is something that will be with you all your life.” 

    RAST: “I’d love to engage with my fellow UAB faculty and staff and students across disciplines in ways that break silos. Because of the diversity of our UAB community and our background interests, there is a lot of opportunity for creativity and ideas that benefit our community.” 

    MUKHTAR: “We are a UAB family. And one of the things we learned during this pandemic is that life is so fragile. Today we are together and the next day we are not. We’ve known this, but when you see it firsthand, then you really feel it and it touches you deeply inside. Today at the College of Arts and Sciences, we are closer to each other than we were two years ago. That affects all of us… So my message would be just to be together as a UAB family and be more productive as a member of the family.” 

    KEITH: “I’d like to give a shout-out to the entire faculty in CAS… Our faculty are the people who are creative, who make discoveries, who produce knowledge. Rather than just being people who pass knowledge on, they are doing that work themselves. So students who come to UAB are lucky that they’re exposed to that. It’s something that will last them for a lifetime.”

    GERE: “I’d like to speak on behalf of my colleagues in theatre and dance and music. Because the last 18 months have been a reminder that the arts help pull everybody together… These are great and strong programs, and they attract top-notch students from Alabama and beyond.”

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  • 1850s horror Twitter, recursive propaganda, mapping mutations: Faculty grants seed new projects and nurture careers

    Projects selected for the UAB Faculty Development Grants Program offer an intriguing look into the creativity and range of research and scholarship on campus.

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  • Study links debt with risk of psychiatric disorders, high blood pressure in midlife

    Research on financial stress following the Great Recession finds that people who were in debt at midlife had a 90 percent increase in being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.

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  • I am Arts and Sciences: Leigh Willis

    In 1997, Leigh Willis, Ph.D., a rising senior studying sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, encountered a life-changing document. It was an interest form about a graduate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    Leigh Willis, Ph.D.In 1997, Leigh Willis, Ph.D., a rising senior studying sociology at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, encountered a life-changing document. It was an interest form about a graduate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

    "UAB’s Department of Sociology sent the information to my department [at Albion],” said Willis. “I completed the form, and, later that summer, UAB invited me to participate in a 10-week paid internship in Birmingham.”

    Through that program, Willis got the chance to connect with and work alongside faculty and graduate students in the UAB Department of Sociology. He also got the opportunity to participate in an engaged learning experience with the Jefferson County Department of Health.

    “The faculty were nurturing and supportive,” said Willis. “I was interested in patterns of health and illness, and [during the internship] I got the chance to interview people at the Jefferson County Department of Health and collect data.”

    During this experience, his mentors and peers in the department also encouraged him to pursue his Ph.D. at UAB. Willis quickly uncovered his appreciation for the faculty-to-student ratio in the department – he also learned that UAB had one of the few medical sociology graduate programs in the country.

    “I received a fellowship with a stipend from the graduate school and stayed in Birmingham,” said Willis. “I started the graduate program and learned the craft and skills of research. I loved the size of the program, because I had a lot of interaction with the faculty.”

    Willis went on to earn his Master of Arts in Sociology, Master of Public Health, and Doctor of Philosophy in Medical Sociology. During his impressive academic career at UAB, Willis developed many valuable skills, including creative problem solving.

    “We were very well-trained,” said Willis. “We could think big and answer hard and difficult questions for the benefit of mankind.”

    After earning his Ph.D., Willis became an assistant professor of sociology and African American Studies at the University of Georgia. Then, in 2009, he was hired to serve as a Behavioral Scientist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). When he arrived at the CDC, he discovered he had something in common with several of his coworkers.

    “There are several UAB alumni at the CDC,” said Willis. “Many of them studied in the College of Arts and Sciences – specifically, the Department of Sociology.”

    Today, Willis is a behavioral scientist at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. He continues to appreciate the value of engaged learning, so he makes an effort to connect current UAB College of Arts and Sciences students with the CDC through internships and research experiences. He also frequently finds opportunities to visit UAB, so he can connect with students and share stories about the impact of his work. He has one career milestone in particular that he enjoys discussing with students.

    “I was one of the leaders of a team that were finalists for a Health and Human Services Innovates Award,” said Willis. “Projects are submitted from all over HHS and voted on by the general public. Through our project, we created a motion comic to educate people about HIV, because parents said it was needed. We went to HHS headquarters and received recognition for our work from the Secretary of Health and Human Services.”

    A short clip from the motion comic is available online, and, in 2018, the journal Health Communication published two articles on the innovative project.

    Willis continues to make a difference through his work, and he encourages current students and recent alumni to do the same. “Continue to work hard. Continue to gather news skills and sharpen existing skills. Don’t be afraid to try and change the world,” said Willis.

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  • Michele “Mike” Wilson – In Remembrance

    Dr. Michele “Mike” Wilson passed away May 30, 2021. She retired as associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (2008) and continued working for the university for several years afterwards.

    Dr. Michele “Mike” Wilson in 2007 at the UAB Diversity Awards Dinner. Photo by Patricia Drentea. Dr. Michele “Mike” Wilson passed away May 30, 2021. She was born December 8, 1942, in Puerto Rico to a military family. Her parents were also politically active, which is where she inherited her activist genes. Dr. Wilson earned her doctorate degree in sociology from the University of Connecticut in 1978.

    She retired as associate professor of sociology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (2008) and continued working for the university for several years afterwards. She had a large following of students and won Outstanding Teacher of the Year at UAB. She taught Introduction to Sociology, Social Problems, the Sociology of Gender, and Deviance. Dr. Wilson was a scholar/activist, and she started and directed the Women’s Studies Program at UAB. Dr. Wilson’s research was on abortion. She also studied government leaders and activism in government, the civil rights movement, and abortion rights. In 2006, she received the UAB President’s Diversity Champion Award for her tireless work in equality.

    Dr. Wilson was an active member of the Southern Sociological Society and was known to bring groups of undergraduates to the meetings. She also advocated for female graduate students in the 1980s through the 2000s — a period of time during which she went from being the only female professor in the Department of Sociology, to retiring alongside equal numbers of male and female professors in the department.

    She was committed and steadfast in her activism and courageous in her fight for equality for women. She headed the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and escorted women to and from Planned Parenthood and across protest lines. Also, she was instrumental in setting up Birmingham's suicide prevention call center. Together with her beloved husband Jack Zylman (deceased 2013), they worked tirelessly for the civil rights movement and in promoting racial equality in Birmingham. She is survived by her brother Rick Wilson and sister-in-law Hope, of Florida, and cousins, nephews, and nieces. She is also survived by stepdaughter Alicia Di Giovanni and grandchildren of San Antonio, TX.

    The Department of Sociology mourns her death. She was brave and ahead of her time. Those who wish to contribute in her name can give to the Dr. Michele Wilson and Professor Becky Trigg Endowed Award, which gives a scholarship to a deserving undergraduate who is academically successful and dedicated to activism and/or gender equity. In lieu of flowers, the family respectfully requests any memorial gifts be made to the endowed award. Gifts can be mailed to UAB Gift Records, AB 1230, 1720 2nd Avenue South, Birmingham, AL 35294-0112 or made online at go.uab.edu/mikewilson.

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  • UAB researchers survey support for legalization of medical cannabis among Alabama physicians

    Researchers from the University of Alabama of Birmingham have published results of a survey gauging Alabama physicians’ support of medical cannabis for qualified patients.

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  • What 10 mentors learned from teaching graduate students and postdocs

    Ten graduate faculty were honored with the UAB Graduate Dean’s Excellence in Mentorship Award for exceptional work with graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

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  • Sociology professors and students partner with Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service

    When Battalion Chief Tobias Jones was collecting information for a Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service (BFRS) strategic planning project, he thought of the UAB Department of Sociology.

    When Battalion Chief Tobias Jones was collecting information for a Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service (BFRS) strategic planning project, he thought of the UAB Department of Sociology.

    Jones had once taken the department’s research methodology course when he was a UAB student and knew the Department of Sociology would have the resources to conduct a study that would cost the BFRS thousands of dollars if they hired a commercial firm. So, working with Birmingham Fire Chief Cory D. Moon, they contacted Verna Keith, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. It was precisely the type of community engagement service the department seeks to provide.

    “I saw Chief Moon’s request as an excellent opportunity to contribute to the community and to expose our students to a collaborative and impactful research experience. That he reached out to the department for this project speaks highly of our faculty and their excellent instruction,” said Dr. Keith.

    Cullen Clark, Ph.D.Soon after, students and professors from two courses had signed on to conduct two studies. Under the supervision of Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Sociology, students in her Research Experience course developed a quantitative survey designed to measure community knowledge and perceptions of BFRS. Additionally, a team of capstone students from the department’s online Master of Arts in Applied Sociology program worked with Cullen Clark, Ph.D., teaching assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, to conduct a series of online focus groups with members of selected neighborhood associations to gather their perceptions and knowledge of BFRS.

    With key support from Chief Moon, Battalion Chief Kenneth Mines, Lieutenant Brian Pernell, Firefighter Jeffrey Hall, the Strategic Plan Committee, and Battalion Chief Jones, the project was an opportunity for students to take the skills they learned in the classroom and put them to work.

    “This project allowed the students to participate firsthand in the research process and provided them with an opportunity to show potential employers the diverse skill set that a degree in sociology can afford,” said Dr. Baker. “At the end of the class, they had produced a report from data derived from a survey they designed, disseminated, and analyzed.”

    Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D.It was a great opportunity for the graduate students as well, recalled Dr. Clark. “We always tell students in our online M.A. program that every sociologist works with a toolkit that consists of social theory, research methodology, and what sociologists call the ‘sociological imagination,’ or the ability to see how broader social and historical forces shape individual lives,” said Dr. Clark. “Projects like this one enable our students to see firsthand just how versatile these tools are and that they can be used to provide insight and information for any organization,” said Dr. Clark.

    Together, the quantitative and qualitative studies provided a greater depth of insight than either could have provided alone. One finding that clearly stood out in both studies was the high esteem in which respondents held BFRS.

    “I don’t think I have ever done focus groups where no one has anything negative to say,” said Dr. Clark.

    Another interesting finding was the extent to which respondents said they had used BFRS emergency medical services at some point. Forty-one percent of the respondents to the quantitative online survey indicated they had used these services. This finding was reiterated by moving personal accounts of focus group members’ interactions with emergency medical services.

    The UAB Department of Sociology is happy to conduct projects like this as resources permit. Community, charitable and civic groups who would like this type of assistance should contact Dr. Verna Keith at vmkeith@uab.edu.

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  • Virtual discussion of ideological divides in COVID-19 experiences is March 12

    UAB’s Haddin Forum Lecture series will host a discussion on the effects of people’s beliefs in shaping COVID reactions and experiences in the U.S. and Poland.

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  • UAB sociology professor receives 5-year grant to study women’s health disparities

    Mieke Beth Thomeer, Ph.D., has received a nearly $1.3 million grant to study midlife health disparities related to motherhood.

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  • Virtual forum on racism-related stress is Feb. 12

    The UAB Haddin Forum Lecture Series will host a discussion on the effects of secondhand discrimination on the well-being of Black adults.

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  • Study aims to reduce HPV and COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among teens in rural Alabama

    Investigators are developing a telemedicine program to reduce vaccine hesitancy related to HPV and the novel coronavirus for adolescents in rural Alabama.

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  • Families contribute to health inequalities during the coronavirus pandemic

    Mieke Beth Thomeer, Ph.D., and Jenjira Yahirun, Ph.D., discuss how families influence health and health disparities throughout life’s course and during COVID-19.

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  • Study suggests nation’s health care providers need more education on medical cannabis

    While demand for medical cannabis products grows in the United States, a UAB study suggests health care providers are ill-equipped to provide guidance.

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