A Clemson University alumnus and post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Public Health Sciences has been named an All of Us Research Fellow by the South Carolina Public Health Association (SCPHA) and the South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare (CRPH).
As a fellow, Samuel L. K. Baxter, Ph.D., MPH will explore the relationship between multiple stressors and physical activity among South Carolinians. Access to data sets and training from the fellowship will provide an opportunity to delve deeply into this issue by first examining urban-rural differences and then differences by race and ethnicity within geographic contexts.
“There’s research and then there’s reality. I want our research to increasingly reflect reality,” Baxter said. “My hope is that the work I do in this fellowship will allow specific groups of people to see themselves in the data by creating as many intersections as possible – namely the intersections of race, ethnicity, geography and level of physical activity.”
The fellowship will see Baxter working with All of Us, a national health database built by the National Institutes of Health. Currently one of the largest, most diverse, and broadly accessible databases available, All of Us enables researchers to learn how biology, lifestyle and environment affect health in order to help them find ways to better understand and improve health. Baxter said All of Us will allow him to draw novel connections between data obtained from electronic health records and the lived experiences of research participants.
Baxter said the prospect of working with this database truly excited him because it would allow him to understand how social determinants of health may affect a person on a metabolic level.
“The results of this kind of study can ultimately drive initiatives and programs that can make a marked difference for specific groups of people,” Baxter said. “This is why I decided to look at stress from multiple levels; stress affects people differently based on their lived experiences and environment, two things the database can allow me to hone in on.”
Baxter will focus his research on two stressors: COVID-19 and allostatic load, which is the accumulated effects on the body of repeated or chronic stress. Baxter is interested in examining how these two stressors affect a person based on who they are and where they live.
The data set will allow Baxter to think of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as a stressful life event, exploring the extent to which employment, finances and personal relationships affect physical activity. Finally, Baxter will be able to study how both of these factors affect specific groups of people on a metabolic level by examining allostatic load.
“Many recreation facilities closed during COVID-19 lockdowns,” Baxter said. “If you’re a Black man without gym access who lived in rural South Carolina, this study may offer insight into how that might have affected your health and how that might be different from a Black man who lived in a more urban area, or someone of a different race, ethnicity or gender identity. That level of specificity is powerful.”
Baxter has completed the training required to access and use the database, and along the way he will be supported by mentors in SCPHA and CRPH. Baxter assumes that adjustments in his research design will be needed along the way, but he looks forward to helping pave the way for future researchers who will use the All of Us database as he prepares to release findings to SCPHA and CRPH this summer.
Baxter’s arrival as a post-doctoral researcher at Clemson University to work as co-investigator for a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention High Obesity Program also served as his return to the University. He originally earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology from Clemson before going on to pursue a master’s degree in public health from Morehouse School of Medicine and later a Ph.D. in Health Policy and Management from the Gillings School of Global Public Health at UNC Chapel Hill.
Baxter has worked closely with principal investigator on the CDC High Obesity Program, Sarah Griffin, who also serves as interim chair for the Department of Public Health Sciences. Griffin said Baxter has excelled in his research role because he truly understands the relationship between research and practice.
She said his focus on factors such as stress, the environment and behavior – and how those factors intersect to influence health – is potentially very powerful. Griffin said the tools that are now afforded to Baxter from the All of Us database give him an opportunity to “stretch” his skillset in ways that will make a meaningful difference.
“Dr. Baxter truly understands rural South Carolina and is committed to advancing health in these areas,” Griffin said. “He is poised to really dig into the unique stressors that influence rural citizens’ health and provide results in a way that allow those same people to see themselves in the research.”
Baxter said he was delighted to find that his original home of sociology and the Department of Public Health Sciences are now housed in the College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences. Although he now clearly sees how racial inequities play out in population health outcomes, he found this path as a Clemson undergraduate student by choosing the community studies concentration in sociology. He was introduced to public health in Medical Sociology, an elective course.
His studies at Morehouse School of Medicine opened his eyes to how much our environments produce health inequities, drawing examples from his upbringing in Columbia, South Carolina, and the rural areas some of his family members lived.
“I started to look back and realize that parts of my environment weren’t as supportive of me being healthy,” Baxter said. “I realized that so many factors beyond individual behavior contributed to my health, and to learn that men – and to a higher degree, Black men – live shorter lives on average, I just saw those as fathers, uncles and best friends, not as statistics.”
The Department of Public Health Sciences is part of the University’s College of Behavioral, Social and Health Sciences (CBSHS). Established in July 2016, CBSHS is a 21st-century, land-grant college that combines work in seven disciplines – Communication; Nursing; Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management; Political Science; Psychology; Public Health Sciences; and Sociology, Anthropology and Criminal Justice – to further its mission in “building people and communities” in South Carolina and beyond.
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