Forging an Enduring Community of Scholarship and Impact: A Final Note from the New Connections Program

Professional mentorship, collaboration, community, and solidarity have always been at the heart of the New Connections program. For the last 12 years, our mission has been to provide funding and professional support, through networking and skill-building, to those working at the intersections of public health and today’s most pressing social justice issues. New Connections aimed to do more than provide grants to underrepresented researchers—we sought to build a vibrant and intersectional community of scholars of color, first-generation academics, LGBTQ+ professors, public health professionals on the ground, and many more, who would support and uplift each other.

Activist and poet Audre Lorde wrote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” The New Connections network has embodied this intersectional struggle for justice with diverse passions and commitment to public health in under-resourced and minority communities. With the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s goal of creating a Culture of Health in mind, our network has challenged health inequities by looking at the numerous interwoven strands of injustice that affect communities. For instance, New Connections grantees have explored issue such as food systems inequalities in Puerto Rico, chronic renal disease in black and low-income communities, and intimate partner violence occurring within LGBTQ+ relationships.

While academia and public health professions have become more inclusive of underrepresented identities, navigating these systems can still be daunting and siloed. Through the years, New Connections brought together a vast network—more than 1,000 scholars—to create a community with shared values and experiences. This social support, from mentorships to friendships and scholarly collaborations, has been an integral part of our work, and, we hope, alleviated some of the alienation new, underrepresented scholars feel at the start of their careers.

Though the New Connections program has come to a close, we hope that our community of scholars will continue to support each other in everything from career development to burnout and challenging systems of health inequity. We are heartened by the tangible commitment expressed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to integrate aspects of New Connections program into its broader program investments.

With this enduring mission in mind, we asked several of our senior scholars and professionals to offer words of wisdom, motivation, and encouragement to our network. These researchers represent various backgrounds and fields in public health. Throughout their careers, they have not only called attention to often ignored health inequities, but have supported their colleagues and the New Connections network in particular. They shared with us the advice they wish they had received at the start of their careers and the wisdom that has carried them to success.

Practicing Pragmatism and Patience

For researchers entering post-doctorate or post-MPH positions, the pressure is high to produce recognized and impactful research. Take it from the scholars—be realistic with what you can accomplish and be patient.

Dr. Florence Dallo

“I wish someone told me that it takes at least 10 years to achieve national and or international recognition as an expert in a specific area,” says Dr. Florence Dallo, chair of the Department of Public & Environmental Wellness at Oakland University. As an expert in Arab and Chaldean American health, Dr. Dallo has called attention to how Arab Americans are often overlooked in clinical settings. Her findings demonstrate that clinicians rarely take into account the arduous immigration process and generational traumas that affect Arab American health.  

Dr. Dallo has written more than 35 works about Chaldean and Arab Americans—a body of work that took her years to build. “Give it time. Obtaining grants, publishing manuscripts, effective teaching, networking takes time. Absorb each moment,” she says, reminding that though developing expertise takes time, scholars should remember to enjoy the process too.

Director of Interdisciplinary Initiatives at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) PolicyLab, Dr. James Guevara also notes that success takes time. “I think the most important thing you can do is be passionate about what you are doing and be willing to work hard to ensure your work is successful. I say this, because you will most likely fail far more than you succeed. But if you stick with what you believe in and work hard, you will give yourself the best chance of success.”

Unfortunately, rejection is a large part of the research process, and being patient through rounds of rejection is exhausting. Dr. Kevin Nadal, professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, urges new scholars to be resilient when it comes to rejection. “Rejections have actually made me more successful. For every paper that was rejected with critical feedback, a better paper was published. For every position or opportunity I did not get, a better one came along,” says Dr. Nadal. “I’ve learned that the more rejections you get, the less personal it feels and the easier it becomes. I’ve also learned that your work won’t be accepted if you don’t put it out there to begin with.” 

Dr. James Guevara

Rejections can be disheartening, but remember that, ultimately, with hard work every manuscript and funding proposal will find its place. Dr. Guevara recommends setting realistic goals and timelines to move work forward. Dr. Guevara, who holds an MD and an MPH, is a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania and an attending physician at CHOP. He also helped found CHOP’s PolicyLab to influence U.S. child health care and health care delivery policy at a higher level. His many projects have required patience and persistence.

“For instance, I might first need to obtain a small intramural or foundation award to provide seed money to assess the feasibility of my ideas and generate preliminary data,” he explains. “Then I might go after larger government funding to more fully test those ideas. Finally, I might try to fund larger dissemination and implementation projects to move those ideas into practice. The motivation that keeps me adhering to these goals and timelines is envisioning how the ideas will work and how they will help others when finally disseminated.”

While planning long-reaching timelines is crucial, so is daily maintenance. If you feel overwhelmed by a recent rejection or the scope of research planning, Dr. Dallo suggests getting small tasks out of the way to keep you motivated. “The nuggets I live by are to respond to e-mails in a timely manner (within 24 hours), and to call people back,” she says. “It is amazing how staying abreast of these forms of communication frees my time to move forward with my research, teaching and other activities.”

Building Relationships

Building relationships, whether they be mentorships, friendships, or professional collaborations, is key to getting your work published, recognized, and funded.

Start with good mentors, says Dr. Guevara. “Finding a successful senior faculty member who believed in me, and was willing to dedicate time and attention to mentor me, helped me to get on a path to success.”

Choose your mentors carefully, though. People in leadership positions are not inherently good leaders or mentors. “I assumed that directors, chairs, deans and others were natural leaders. However, this was not true,” says Dr. Dallo. But, a lack of leadership can also become a motivator. “At the same time, it helped me learn how to become a better guide and mentor to my faculty now that I am chair of a department,” she adds.

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards

Peer collaborations can be just as formative as faculty mentorships, says Keisha Bentley-Edwards, professor of General Internal Medicine at Duke University. “Being an independent scholar does not mean being an isolated scholar,” says Dr. Bentley-Edwards. “My best work is collaborative, and asking for help or feedback from senior scholars is necessary (and expected if you are getting National Institutes of Health funding) to navigate a successful career. Focus on leading your research agenda as opposed to being a one-person research machine.”

In addition to her teaching position, Dr. Bentley-Edwards is director of the Health Equity Working Group at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University, which recently received a $2.7 million grant for a five-year research study examining the links between religiosity and cardiovascular disease in African Americans. Her work as a psychologist has focused on a multitude of research surrounding issues of racism and justice in the U.S.—including racial socialization and cohesion, the school to prison pipeline, and psychosocial stress. As a research director at the Cook Center, Dr. Bentley-Edwards has learned to collaborate and delegate tasks to keep her focus on the the research itself.

When you’ve finished a research project or reached a deliverable milestone, use your collaborations, mentorships, and peer networks to share your work. “Don’t wait for annual reports, third year review or promotion portfolios to tell people about the great things that you are doing,” says Dr. Bentley-Edwards. “Let people know as they occur, and even if it seems minor. If you don’t toot your own horn, your colleagues may assume that you are unproductive.”

Similarly, remember to reach beyond the academy to get your work recognized. In the hands of influential individuals and organizations your research can become action, says Dr. Guevara. “It’s important to make connections with influential individuals and others who can implement your work, such as policymakers, community organizations, and advocacy groups. They can shape your ideas and ensure those ideas reflect the interests and preferences of consumers of your work.”

Dr. Kevin Nadal

These systems of support inside and outside of the academy are particularly important for first-generation and underrepresented scholars, according to Dr. Nadal. “Our trailblazers have created social and professional networks like New Connections, so that we can have akin to what rich White men have had for centuries,” he explains. A Filipino American and member of the LGBTQ community, his background has deeply influenced his academic work. He is one of the leading scholars on microaggressions, and most recently he edited and published a psychology and gender anthology—with special attention to intersectionality.

“When you’re introduced to people who are willing to support you, mentor you, and uplift you, take advantage of that gift,” says Dr. Nadal. “Always be humble and gracious, as that will lead to even more genuine relationships and even more opportunities.”

Navigating the “System”

New Connections is proud to have fostered and supported a diverse community of scholars. Systemic racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and many other forms of discrimination make navigating academia and higher research arduous and stressful. On top of that, public health researchers are at the frontlines of social injustice nationally and internationally, which can take its toll on their mental health. Our senior scholars have dealt with these frustrations and emerged with bodies of work that challenge oppressive systems.

“Name systemic racism and oppression,” says Dr. Nadal. “Externalize it. It’s not you. The system wasn’t made for you, but we can learn how to navigate it and even change parts of it. It took me a long time to realize this on my own and I wish that more early career professionals learned this from the start.”

Scholars, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, may be asked to participate in or lead a disproportionate amount of work outside of course loads and publishing responsibilities, such as mentoring, diversity programs, and faculty committees. While you may be passionate about these programs, being overloaded with extra work can lead to burnout and affect your primary faculty or research responsibilities, says Dr. Bentley-Edwards.

“I did not expect so many distractions (good, bad, healthy, unhealthy) as a faculty member,” she explains. “Particularly as a Black woman, the service request can be overwhelming. This year, I am focusing on the art of saying mostly ‘no’—as in ‘I can’t do all that you are requesting, but I will commit to these one or two tasks’. Although I will give a hard ‘no’ occasionally, this strategy allows me to be thoughtful about my time commitments, set boundaries, and still be seen as a team player.”

Facing discrimination and overburdening in research settings can be exhausting. Many underrepresented scholars are required to balance speaking out against oppression and creating space for their independent work. Staying motivated and focused is a continued challenge, even for senior scholars. But, Dr. Nadal and Dr. Bentley-Edwards say they combat this fatigue by staying grounded in the people they fight for through their work.

Dr. Bentley-Edwards turns to family and community support at every step of her research. “When I initiate a study, challenge deficit approaches, and report findings, I bring my family and community with me because they are the reason I am here, and they are worth fighting for,” she says.

Dr. Nadal warns researchers not to be caught up in the bubble of academia. Maintaining close ties to the communities his research advocates for also means that those communities will advocate for him, he says.

“When we are stuck in the Ivory Tower, it can be easy to lose sight of why we do this work,” Dr. Nadal explains. “When we no longer are connected to the communities we grew up with, the easier it is to not care about the issues that they are affected by. When researchers and scholars are only part of academic and professional communities that look like them (and not part of community or non-profit organizations), they lose awareness of the people who didn’t or don’t have the same opportunities or privileges that they did. Plus, when you’re actually part of the communities you try to uplift, they will support you too. They will want to see you succeed.”

The New Connections National Program Office team believes deeply in the varied research missions of our network. It has been an honor to work alongside such passionate and brilliant people. We know that this strong community will continue to support each other and the next generation of young underrepresented scholars.