How one maternity health researcher got started in honors

This past year, a University Honors Program alumna received research funding from Google to reduce health disparities experienced by women of color.

The alumna, Dr. Toluwalasé Ajayi, MD, graduated in 2004 with a degree in psychology. While at KU, she was involved with Student Senate, the University Scholars Program, and undergraduate research. After completing medical school and residency training at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Ajayi had a fellowship in hospice and palliative medicine in California. She now serves as the medical director of palliative medicine and a clinical researcher at Scripps Mercy Hospital San Diego.

Ajayi says representation in research is a consistent theme across her work.

“Especially when we look at clinical medical research, and those who are marginalized or underrepresented in healthcare, you have to give them a voice. A lot of the standards of care are based a very narrow population and are not representative of the groups we actually take care of,” Ajayi said.

Ajayi’s research is one of many projects funded by the Fitbit Health Equity Research Initiative, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company. As part of the study, around 500 Black and Hispanic pregnant women were given Fitbit devices to regularly record health data at home.

The goal is to demonstrate the viability of home care, much of which is monitoring bodily signs. If those signs deviate from healthy ranges, a tracking device could recommend an office visit, which could lead public and private insurance policies to reimburse it. Funding technology-assisted home care could reduce health inequities and make care more accessible to women of color.

“Despite being one of the richest nations in the world, we're still number one among developed countries in mortality and morbidity for maternal health. And Black and brown women carry the brunt of that,” said Ajayi. “To see that change dramatically — to actually level the playing field so that everyone has a healthy pregnancy and pregnancy outcome — would be the key.”

Dr. Ajayi’s research interest began while still an undergraduate student. She conducted an updated version of the “doll test” cited in the Brown v. Board U.S. Supreme Court decision. Ajayi’s experiment asked children between the ages of three and seven questions about their perceptions of dolls with varying skin tones. Just as the original test did, Ajayi’s showed that racist stereotypes negatively impacted Black children’s self-image.

Her advisor for the project was Dr. Yo Jackson, a professor of psychology and applied behavioral science at KU. Ajayi already had role models such as her mother, Folabo Ajayi, who was a professor of theatre, film, and women’s studies at KU, but Professor Jackson provided something more.

“Seeing success outside of the scope of my mother’s work in African studies and women’s studies — someone who was in a field I was interested in— it made me feel like I could do anything,” said Ajayi.

Jackson’s mentorship inspired Ajayi to become a mentor herself. In her capacity at Scripps Mercy Hospital, she mentors high schoolers and undergraduates interested in medicine. Ajayi recently received updates from some of these students. One high school student she previously mentored was accepted into Stanford University. Another mentee matched into a residency program at Yale University.

“When I get those emails and they reach out to me and thank me, I feel like I'm doing it,” said Ajayi.” I feel like that, to me, is success.”