web fouad featureIf you’re following our National Minority Health Month series, you might remember that earlier, we shined a light on the work we’re doing in partnership with the Center for Clinical and Translational Science and the Schools of Medicine and Public Health & Health Professions.

Alabama CEAL is working to help demystify COVID Vaccines by addressing the myths and misconceptions surrounding them. Working specifically within our underserved populations, CEAL aims to help those disproportionally affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In order to promote and facilitate the inclusion and participation of the underserved minorities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has funded an effort for outreach and engagement. Leading that effort is Mona Fouad, M.D., MPH.

To get insight into Dr. Fouad’s journey to becoming the Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion, Director and Professor in the Division of Preventive Medicine, and Director of the Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center, we asked her to participate in a Q&A.

Q: Tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up, attend school, and what degree were you pursuing?

Dr. Fouad: I grew up in Alexandria, Egypt.

In Egypt, you don’t have to attend undergraduate school—you can go straight from high school to medical school. So, when I was 16, I had to decide what career I wanted to pursue. No one in my family was in the medical field; they were in engineering or various other professions.

I played the piano and had a teacher at the conservatoire that wanted me to continue it professionally, which she said was a more suitable profession for a woman. However, I’ve always enjoyed interacting and working with people. The idea of helping someone who isn’t feeling good or is suffering from a condition fascinated me, so I felt like medicine would be a natural fit.

I attended medical school, at the Alexandria University School of Medicine in Alexandria, graduating in 1977. Once I got to UAB, I decided to go back to school for my master’s in public health—which I graduated from in 1986.

Q: When did your interest in health disparities start?

Dr. Fouad: After graduating from medical school I did my internship in the University safety net hospital, then worked for a year in a rural community. The thing about rural communities is that health professionals are working in areas with limited resources and are also working with people who are disconnected from new information, resulting in lower health literacy rates. Quickly this can result in skepticism regarding the medical field—believing in only the home remedies passed down by their parents and grandparents.

Working in this rural area is where I began to feel like my role was more than diagnosing cases and providing medicine. I saw the power and importance of educating people on how to take better care of themselves and those around them.

When I realized that knowledge was the key component, I became consumed with the idea of understanding the culture of these underserved markets, social determinants, and how they impact health. Once I understood these things, I knew I could increase their quality of life by bringing knowledge and information to them.

Q: What brought you to UAB?

Dr. Fouad: My husband, Dr. Fouad Fouad, was working on his Ph.D. at Texas A&M. Originally, we planned on going back home to Alexandria. His advisor suggested he come to UAB for a year to get practical experience before returning home. So, we came to Birmingham for one year and never left.

When I started my work at UAB, I was on a project that focused on blue-collar and hourly workers. While it wasn’t the exact situation as in rural Egypt, I drew many parallels—mostly surrounding health literacy, access to healthcare, and a need for trusted information. However, there were also the added complexities of chronic disease, uncontrolled hypertension, obesity, and diabetes.

Q: What are you working on now?

Dr. Fouad: I’m working on a few things right now.

The first is CEAL, which is focused on facilitating the inclusion and participation of underrepresented communities in vaccine and therapeutic clinical trials.

Then, there’s Live HealthSmart Alabama—winner of the first-ever UAB Grand Challenge—designed to advance good nutrition, physical activity, and preventive wellness in our demonstration areas across Birmingham. Ultimately, that program’s goal is to bring Alabama out of the bottom rankings for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

I’m on a precision medicine project called, All of Us that is very interesting. We are trying to enroll a million people in this national initiative. Once we build the network, the idea will be that we can learn more about personalized medicine—why some people get sick, and others don’t, why some respond (or don’t) to treatment.

The largest grant I’m working on is for the Obesity Health Disparities Research Center (OHDRC), which focuses on obesity as a risk factor for many chronic diseases. Unlike some of our other grants, this work has expanded to include Mississippi and Louisiana. Additionally, this center grant includes multiple projects that are housed within—focusing on families, children, mothers, community engagement, healthy eating, and more.

Also, the OHDRC is home to two undergraduate training programs: STEP-UP and RAMP-UP. Each of these programs concentrates on developing the pipeline of diverse researchers into the field of minority health and health disparities. A key differentiator of this curriculum is a focus on mentorship. Mentors are critical to success in the medical field. It’s helpful to have someone in your corner, supporting and encouraging you throughout your career.

Q: Do you have any advice for people interested in pursuing a career in health disparities?

Dr. Fouad: Working in this field, you have to have passion. I started working in health disparities about 20 years ago. Back then, it wasn’t a top priority like it is now. Along the way, some people thought I was making a mistake by pursuing a career in minority health. Without passion, I may not have continued.

Q: Throughout your journey, what words of wisdom have you lived by?

Dr. Fouad: Persistence and resilience can get you anywhere. When you wake up in the morning and are feeling discouraged, like you don’t want to do anything, persistence reminds you why you do what you do—because every challenge is an opportunity for a solution.