Chris Hahm’s Uphill Battle: The Severe Underfunding of AAPI Diabetes Research


 

H. Chris Hahm, PhD, MSSW, professor at the Boston University School of Social Work and intervention research scientist, is the lead researcher for Epi Asian American Women’s Action In Resilience Empowerment (AWARE) study. The study got its name from inspiration out of stories from young Asian American women navigating the challenges of adulthood, American culture, and their parent’s culture. Along with Yvette Cozier, DSc, another lead researcher on the team, Hahm is investigating trauma-related, race-related, and family-related stressors on the risk of Type 2 diabetes among Asian American women.

Despite Asian communities—including Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders—constituting 6.1 percent of the total U.S. population, all clinical research projects focused on Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander participants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) comprised only 0.17 percent of the total NIH budget from 1992 to 2018. While the percentage of diabetes research focused on the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) community is unknown, Hahm says that AAPI diabetes research is included in the aforementioned percentage. 

According to Hahm, more funding is needed to study diabetes among the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. Type 2 diabetes affects nine percent of Asian Americans overall with the highest prevalence shared amongst Filipino, Pacific Islander, Japanese, and South Asian groups. “When you study Asian Americans, it is so difficult because there’s so little grant money out there,” Hahm tells Beyond Type 1. “There has been so little investment from the NIH to support our health because we are invisible.”

Hahm says that grant mechanisms don’t give the Asian community enough importance or significance in research in large part due to the model minority myth–a false notion and stereotype that Asian people can achieve high levels of success despite racial, economic, and other social barriers. The myth disregards the struggles of the Asian community, making their needs invisible. 

Hahm adds that when applying for grants, reviewers of grant applications imply that because Asian Americans constitute such a small percentage of the population, her application would be stronger if her research looked at all racial and ethnic groups instead of solely focusing on Asian Americans. “That’s what I hear over and over again. Asian Americans are struggling with a particular set of struggles,” Hahm stresses. “I want to amplify that. That’s my role.” 

She recalls that while she has received a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, her research journey has been a dynamic one. Over the course of Hahm’s research tenure, Hahm has not only struggled to receive grant funding for research studies focused on Asian Americans, but has witnessed an alarming decrease in Asian social science professors and researchers. “I have seen over the years, some of the people who published studies about Asian women disappear over the course of time,” Hahm recalls. “I am one of the longest standing.” At the Boston University School of Social Work, Hahm is the first Asian American professor promoted to full professor at the Boston University School of Social Work, underscoring the importance of diabetes researchers focusing on the Asian American population. 

Currently, the study is in phase II, which will allow the team to collect blood samples. 

In total, the Epi AWARE study consists of three phrases:

  • Phase I involves participants completing an online questionnaire that accesses early life and adult exposure to psychosocial stressors
  • Phase II will involve a blood sample collection and body size measurement 
  • Phase III includes a follow-up questionnaire six months after the first questionnaire

When the pandemic hit, Hahm says that it really impacted the study’s operations. The pandemic put a pause on Hahm’s research and recently, Hahm and her team received clearance to return. Despite the study’s set of challenges, Hahm is eager and ready to begin phase II of the study. “And right now, we finally got the green light to get back to the study,” Hahm explains. 

Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the U.S. Hahm hopes that her research will shed light on the risk factors for diabetes among the Asian American community, information that has not been systematically investigated. “Our hope is that the study will address health inequities and systems of oppression facing Asian American women across their lifespans,” Hahm says. 

Want to help? All identifying Asian American women 18 years or older interested in participating in the Epi AWARE study can email sswaware@bu.edu

WRITTEN BY Kayla Hui, MPH , POSTED 04/20/21, UPDATED 04/21/21

Kayla Hui is the health reporter for Beyond Type 1 covering diabetes, chronic illnesses, and health inequities. She received her Masters in Public Health from the Boston University School of Public Health. Kayla won a Pulitzer Center fellowship and Slants Foundation award in 2020 for her project on the mental health of Chinese Immigrant truck drivers. Her published work can be found at Healthline, Verywell Health, Pulitzer Center, and more. Outside of work, Kayla enjoys rock climbing, baking, and buying plants she doesn’t need. You can follow Kayla on Twitter at @kaylanhui.