`Genius' rewarded

Hopkins physician, UM geographer are among 24 awarded $500,000 MacArthur grants for research

September 25, 2007|By Frank D. Roylance and Chris Emery | Frank D. Roylance and Chris Emery,Sun reporters

A Johns Hopkins physician who studies the effect of racial differences in the examining room and an environmental geographer at the University of Maryland who uses satellites to map tropical deforestation are among the latest recipients of MacArthur "genius" grants.

Dr. Lisa A. Cooper of Columbia and Ruth DeFries of Washington will receive $500,000 each over the next five years to use however they see fit - no strings attached.

They are among 24 winners of this year's MacArthur Fellows Program grants - chosen for their creativity, the originality of their work and their potential to make important contributions in their fields.

Other recipients include a forensic anthropologist investigating crimes against humanity in Argentina, a short-story author in Illinois, a water-quality engineer at Virginia Tech, a spider silk biologist in California and an explosives engineer in New Mexico.

MacArthur nominations are supposed to be secret. But the 44-year-old Cooper, an internist, epidemiologist and professor of general internal medicine, got wind of hers well in advance. "Somebody leaked word to me last year that I'd been nominated," she said.

Although she was the sixth MacArthur recipient to win while working at Hopkins, she said she had never heard of the grants before learning about the nomination.

"I looked it up, and said, `Wow!'" she recalled, but when months passed with no more news, she forgot about the whole thing. "When I got the phone call this week, I thought someone was trying to play a joke on me," she said.

Although research on racial disparities in medical care have traditionally focused on access to doctors, Cooper found additional reasons for the problem: black patients are less likely to trust their doctors and less likely to challenge authority and ask questions than white patients.

They're also more likely than whites to worry about personal privacy, addiction to antidepressant drugs and the potential for harmful experimentation.

Cooper said the MacArthur Fellows grants speak directly to a persistent problem academic researchers face obtaining funding. "Sometimes you have ideas that are just not in the mainstream. People think you're kind of crazy, and say, `Why would you want to study that kind of population? It's too hard,'" she said.

The "no-strings" grants, she said, "mean somebody is willing to take a chance on you ... based on what you've done in the past; that you are promising enough that you'll deliver something on it. ... It's really exciting."

Dr. Edward D. Miller, dean and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine, said Cooper's work is "absolutely critical to the mission of delivering the benefits and advances in health care to all who need them."

Cooper grew up in Liberia, the daughter of a surgeon and a reference librarian. Schooled in Switzerland, she fled violence in Liberia in 1980 with her family.

She earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Emory University in Atlanta, and her M.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She completed her internship and residency at the University of Maryland, and earned a master's in public health at Hopkins.

Cooper's research at Hopkins has focused on the cultural and social roots of disparities in health care outcomes among minorities.

"What we've shown is that there are differences in the communication process between minorities and whites" that appear to have an impact on medical outcomes, she explained. "Minority patients talk less, ask fewer questions and basically sound less assertive and interested when they're seeing [white] doctors."

For their part, the doctors and other providers "talk to the patient, but maybe in a way where the patient doesn't get a chance to express ... why they're there, and what's worrying them. We don't know whether they [patients] have understood when they leave," Cooper said.

A study she published in 2003 showed same-race patient visits are 2 1/2 minutes longer than different-race visits. Patients also reported being more satisfied and more involved in their treatment when their doctor was of the same race.

Other work is attempting to determine what changes in their approach to examining room conversations might improve how white providers relate to minority patients, and patients' adherence to treatment.

With support from her MacArthur grant, Cooper hopes to remain at Hopkins, but take time to extend her work into the developing world, perhaps to Liberia and even to Europe, where minority groups receive poorer health care. "This is a global problem," she said.

Ruth DeFries, 50, works in College Park's Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center and Department of Geography, using satellites to research the rapid changes humans are making to the environment.

Officials believe she's the first College Park faculty member to win a MacArthur grant, although five graduates have won the awards later in their careers.

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