Throughout her career, Dr. Kumanyika has advocated for health promotion research and practices that are respectful of and responsive to cultural and ecological influences on lifestyles and health status. She is an articulate spokesperson for the use of cultural knowledge to develop and implement initiatives to reduce health disparities affecting ethnic minority and socially disadvantaged communities. She has devoted particular energy to engendering strategies for effective environmental and behavioral change to reduce obesity and related disorders in the African American population. Her efforts have also led her on a successful path of mentoring the next generation of investigators and advocates for meeting the needs of underserved populations in the United States with respect to diet and health.
Dr. Kumanyika’s interest in the importance of cultural and contextual factors in health grew out of her multidisciplinary educational and practice experiences. Born in Baltimore, Maryland, she received a BA in psychology from Syracuse University in 1965. She earned an MS in social work from Columbia University in 1969 and practiced as a social caseworker or community organizer in the areas of foster care and adoption services, child mental health services, and chronic disease care. In the 1970’s, convinced of the importance of nutrition to a wide array of health issues and especially for underserved populations, Dr. Kumanyika undertook doctoral studies in nutritional sciences, earning her PhD in human nutrition at Cornell University in 1978. She joined the Cornell faculty at that time, with responsibility for teaching community nutrition in both classroom and field settings. She obtained an MPH, with an emphasis on epidemiology, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Hygiene & Public Health in 1984, where she remained for several years teaching and conducting research in Nutritional Epidemiology.
In the mid-1980’s, as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary’s Task Force on Black and Minority Health, Dr. Kumanyika was the lead author of in-depth reviews about disparities in cardiovascular diseases affecting black, Hispanic, and Native Americans, and Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders, as well as an additional review of nutrition as a cross-cutting issue for minority health. Shortly thereafter she wrote a detailed review article on the epidemiology of obesity in black women. While working on these reviews, she became convinced of the importance of culture and its dialectic interactions with the social, economic, and environmental contexts within ethnic minority and socially disadvantaged communities as vital terrain within the national research agenda. A particular motivation for her work was the apparent reluctance to truly understand the complexity and sensitivity of addressing the cultural context for obesity for ethnic groups within the United States. She has worked diligently to foster open and informed dialogue on these issues within and between minority and mainstream circles.
Dr. Kumanyika is currently Associate Dean for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Founding Director of the Graduate Program in Public Health Studies, Professor of Epidemiology in Biostatistics and Epidemiology and in Pediatrics (Nutrition), and Senior Scholar in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, all at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. She is also a Senior Fellow in Penn’s Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics and the Institute on Aging.
During the last decade, she has been principal investigator or co-investigator of numerous major studies, including several clinical trials of dietary behavior change for health improvement in underserved and minority populations. Her recent studies involve the development and evaluation of culturally appropriate interventions to prevent or treat obesity among African Americans in clinical or community-based settings. Dr. Kumanyika is also the Principal Investigator and Director of the Penn-Cheyney EXPORT (Excellence in Partnerships for community Outreach, Research on Health Disparities and Training) Center for Inner City Health. This Center of Excellence, a collaboration between the University of Pennsylvania and the Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a historically black institution in Greater Philadelphia, is funded by the National Center for Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Center focuses on environmental and behavioral strategies to reduce obesity and related conditions in African American and Hispanic communities.
Dr. Kumanyika has been a longstanding advisor to the NIH as well. In 1992, she co-chaired the 4th National Forum on Cardiovascular Health, Pulmonary Disorders, and Blood Resources: “Minority Health Issues for an Emerging Majority” for the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) at NIH. In 1993-1995, for the NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health, she chaired or co-chaired committees that focused on ways to improve recruitment and retention of women and ethnic minorities in clinical studies. For the NHLBI she also chaired the Subcommittee on Special Populations and Situations of the Expert Panel on the Identification, Evaluation, and Treatment of Obesity in Adults (1995-1998), served on the National Advisory Council (1996-2000), and co-chaired the Think Tank on Enhancing Obesity Research (2003). In all of these activities, Dr. Kumanyika’s involvement strengthened awareness of issues for ethnic minority and underserved populations and increased recognition of the work necessary to build the science base and the critical mass of investigations and investigators to address health disparities. Her influence has also extended internationally through her leadership, since 1996, of the Prevention Working Group of the International Obesity Task Force, her service as a consultant to the World Health Organization and the World Cancer Research Fund, and her advocacy and lectures on several continents. These activities often provide opportunities to highlight the needs of underserved populations within affluent countries such as the United States.
Dr. Kumanyika’s efforts to improve the quality and quantity of culturally-sensitive research to improve the health of minority populations led her to form the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN) in 2002, with support from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, her EXPORT Center, and, most recently, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. AACORN is committed to identifying the special needs of African American populations around issues of weight, nutrition, physical activity as they affect health and quality of life and to elucidating the special roles and sensitivities appropriate for those who conduct related research or programs in African American communities. Started as a mentoring collaboration, this network also provides Dr. Kumanyika with a focused opportunity to expand her efforts to guide and promote the careers of scholars of color.
Dr. Kumanyika’s recent honors include the 1997 Bolton L. Corson Nutrition Research Medal from the Franklin Institute, the American Heart Association’s 2003 Louis B. Russell Jr. Memorial Award, the 2005 Herbert W. Nickens Epidemiology Award from the Association of Black Cardiologists, and the American Heart Association’s inaugural Population Research Prize (in 2005). She was elected to membership in the Institute of Medicine in 2003.