R Star

The Health Ambassador: Carolyn Murray

By Madeline Adamo

In December 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the U.S. mortality rate had been decreasing since 2015.

Carolyn Murray, a professor of psychology at UCR who studies race, ethnicity, and health, knew she needed to figure out the whole story.

The night before Murray received the NAACP’s 2018 Dr. William Montague Cobb Award for special achievements in public health at the local level, she made a key discovery: black males had actually experienced a 1 percent age-adjusted mortality rate increase compared to the year earlier, the only racial group to see a significant increase.

“It was almost hush-hush,” said Murray, who had anticipated a media sensation based on her finding. But it never came.

“That discrepancy affected the entire population, but they didn’t talk about it at all, because it’s not a group that they are concerned about,” she said. For Murray, the numbers point to a need for improved health education among African Americans and others.

Illustration by Mike Tofanelli

Murray, who joined UCR in 1980, has dedicated her career to addressing health disparities in the African American community. In 2014, she founded the nonprofit University STEM Academy with one clear purpose: quality health for all.

The academy, for which Murray also serves as executive director, is housed in UCR’s psychology building. The program, which is home to a “mini-medical school,” is aimed mostly at sixth-to-ninth-grade African American students, creating a healthy and active learning environment to increase the participants’ academic knowledge and performance, while developing their leadership skills.

Ten Saturday sessions see scholars — roughly 20 boys and 20 girls each year — and their parents arrive on campus at 8:30 a.m. for classes in math and biomedicine. Parents, who are required to stay for two hours, attend workshops that focus on topics such as state mandated curriculum standards, classroom dynamics, and paying for college, Murray said.

The workshops also review African American history and the federal government’s long record of favoring some groups over others, Murray said, who wants parents to understand the social, economic, and political ramifications of these disparities, and to support their children in becoming health ambassadors for their communities.

“They’re going to be saving lives,” Murray said, sharing a story about a scholar who was able to ward off shock and save his leg after a car accident. The reason, his doctors believed, was the medical knowledge he had gleaned from the program.

“Africans believe there is a totality, and not a separation, between mind and body and soul,” Murray said, pointing out the contrast with Western culture, which historically separates the three. “You want your body to be in tune with your mind and soul, and harmonize the three together.”

After lunch, scholars attend ceremonial modules adapted by Murray for the academy that are based on African traditions and designed to help boys and girls transition into adulthood. Addressing the youths’ needs for cultural reformation and identity development, an exercise regimen of calisthenics and martial arts, as well as leadership training and dance, helps foster responsibility and self-development for scholars, Murray said.

This summer, the academy offered a camp focused on health care, medicine, algorithmic and computational thinking through coding, robotics, and telemedicine projects.

“We are extremely optimistic that joining robotic-STEM education and health care technology will engage the young participants from all walks of life and catapult them into going to college, encouraging a sizable number to major in physical and biological careers.” Murray said.

This type of work led the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, to award Murray the Cobb Award in July. Murray has received numerous other awards and honors, including the Distinguished Teaching Award from UCR, the Riverside Countywide YWCA Woman of Achievement Award in Education, the UCR Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Research, and the Association of Black Psychologists Distinguished Psychologist Award.

She is also the recipient of the NAACP Riverside Branch’s Roy Wilkins Award, UCR’s Outstanding Black Faculty of the Year award, and the UCR Graduate Division’s Award for Commitment to Graduate Diversity.

Visit universitystemacademy.com for more information.