Aih Fellow Opara


Health Fellow Spotlight: Ijeoma Opara

Meet Dr. Ijeoma Opara, a 2024 Aspen Ideas: Health Fellow and an Associate Professor at Yale University. Learn how she's engaging "citizen researchers" to co-create mental health programs, inform interventions, and deliver education services to residents of all ages.

  • May 21st 2024

As the Director of Yale's Substances & Sexual Health (SASH) Research Lab, Ijeoma Opara is reimagining the way researchers work with communities to address public health issues. This summer, she will join nearly 100 fellows at Aspen Ideas: Health to engage in conversations on health's biggest topics. We caught up with Dr. Opara ahead of the event to learn about the big idea she’s putting into action.

Tell us about your big idea!

I want to change the way we conduct mental health research in urban communities of color by training residents, including youth, to become citizen researchers. This community-based approach will make mental health – and public health research as a whole – exciting for participants as they become invested in the research and developing solutions. With proper training and support, researchers and community leaders can join forces to create mental health programs, inform interventions, and deliver education services to youth and adult residents and families.

How do you recruit the citizen researchers you work with and how have you seen this approach help build trust and agency with the participants?

I am a community-based participatory researcher, which means I regularly collaborate with community leaders through outreach and immersion in the cities where I conduct my research. Through this approach, I naturally form partnerships with schools, youth-serving organizations, and health departments. I train my team to adopt this same approach. Entering a community as a learner, I rely on my partners and the youth to inform us about the challenges and successes they have faced, and how to navigate their cities and towns. Humility is crucial in this kind of work, and I am always in a state of reflection to ensure that my actions represent the community's ideas and provide them with viable solutions. Consequently, many of our projects are co-created with youth and community partners. We consistently seek their feedback, listen to their ideas, and explore ways to enhance our projects by incorporating community-centered research and evidence.

What are some examples of impactful solutions you have co-created with the communities you’ve worked with?

Last year, we initiated a community mental health workshop stemming from an idea I discussed with a community partner, Ms. Cristina Barnes-Lee. She is a licensed clinical social worker and one of my advisory board members. I proposed creating a safe space for youth to learn about mental health strategies, psychoeducation, and to process their experiences. Cristina suggested an enhancement: hold the meetings in person, provide dinner, and extend invitations to parents and family members. This led to the establishment of community dinners that we now host monthly in Paterson. Over the past year, we have engaged over 300 youths and adults. These meetings are funded by my grant as an outreach activity, but their impact has been profound. Encouraged by this success, we are currently expanding these workshop dinners to other cities, such as East Orange, NJ.

We are also collaborating with Cristina and our youth advisory board  to co-create a mental health education intervention. As a clinician working in Paterson, NJ, Cristina is acutely aware of the daily challenges faced by local youth who have limited access to mental health resources. Leveraging her skills and experiences, along with the contributions of my research team, and our youth advisory board—which includes teens from Paterson—we have been meeting weekly for the past year to develop a psychoeducational intervention tailored for Paterson's youth. We are now in the final stages of this project and hope to fully implement it later this year!

Community partner Cristina Pagan, Dr. Opara, and Kimberly Pierre, SASH Lab Outreach Director

The rise of AI – and its algorithm biases – has implications for today’s health researchers. Can you explain how expanding the use of community-based participatory research can help improve machine learning?

Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) is designed to foster trust and facilitate co-creation with the community. Engaging in CBPR can be time-consuming, but the outcomes are often impactful and transformative for all involved. In the context of AI, which is rapidly advancing, many people remain skeptical. Their distrust stems not from a lack of understanding, but from the observation that many AI predictions and algorithms do not accurately reflect the lived experiences of people of color. This discrepancy often arises because researchers face challenges in including diverse populations in clinical trials and research studies.

Understanding the significance of data science and algorithm development is crucial, as these elements have the potential to revolutionize how we predict and treat mental health issues, substance use disorders, and various other health-related concerns. However, these technologies must be developed correctly, incorporating community involvement to ensure that the results are as accurate and equitable as possible.

I was grateful to receive five years of funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse to bring a new program to the communities I work with. The first step to doing true participatory machine learning research is to teach the community all about machine learning and AI and its use in prevention research. We will be developing a youth summer research program to train young people from urban cities in New Jersey on public health, an introduction to artificial intelligence and machine learning, and participatory methods to reduce substance use and improve mental health. We will select participants from the training program to engage in our five-year project, allowing them to work with our team to co-create algorithms, inform our findings, and participate in community-level initiatives. The goal of this project is not only to gain community buy-in for the work my team is doing but also to train the next generation of prevention scientists who come from the cities most impacted by these issues.

From your Dreamer Girls Project to youth advisory boards, young people have been directly involved in every step of your research on topics ranging from sexual health to substance abuse. How have you seen your model help deepen their interest in social science and public health?

Initially, almost all of our youth advisory board members from both groups were not interested in public health. Most were primarily motivated by the opportunity to use their voices to contribute to initiatives benefiting Black girls like themselves. Gradually, they developed an interest in public health and began to understand how it impacts them and the various ways researchers use data to inform programs. Now, nearly all of them not only want to major in public health, but they also aspire to attend Yale, which would be a dream come true for me!

Intervention review meeting at the Yale SASH Lab with Psychiatrist Dr. Uche Aneni-Child, Project Director Beatriz Duran-Becerra, Research Assistant Shreya Jadhav, and Research Associate Catherine Mwai

In what ways has your own background informed your career and the way you approach your research? What advice do you have for the next generation of social scientists and health researchers?

My background has deeply influenced my career and how I approach my research. As a trained social worker and former youth and family therapist in which I provided at-home counseling, along with my personal experiences of growing up in an urban community and losing my parents at a young age to heart disease complications, I've developed a profound connection to the communities I serve. When I work with kids in urban cities, I see reflections of my younger self, and I am reminded of how my community supported me and allowed me to thrive despite the odds. Many thrive under such circumstances, and these stories of resilience are often overlooked. My life experiences have taught me to value community deeply and to encourage the youth to do the same. I credit much of my success to my Christian faith and the support from my community, friends, mentors, and everyone who believed in me, and I aspire to extend that same support to the youth I work with.

My advice to the next generation of social scientists and health researchers is to continually reflect on your role in your work. Consider what drives your passion and how you want to make a difference, always remembering that our work represents real people, not just data points. I often remind my team that the data we analyze corresponds to real human beings. Therefore, we must approach our work with diligence and passion, striving to deliver solutions that genuinely benefit the communities we serve.

In everything I do, I consider potential solutions and how I can contribute positively to the community. This involves asking how my research can benefit the community, whether through hiring local members, mentoring underrepresented students, conducting outreach, inviting youth and community leaders to Yale, co-creating initiatives and research, or evaluating organizations to help them secure more resources and improve. This comprehensive approach ensures that our work not only addresses immediate needs but also fosters long-term, sustainable change.


The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.  

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