Susan Graff

EdD Student Susan Graff Wins $500K Pitt Research Award

Troubled by the lack of diversity in the health sciences profession, Susan Graff is working to create a more inclusive environment for students, faculty, and staff at the University of Pittsburgh.

Graff, who is an assistant professor and director of the Physician Assistant Studies Residential Program at the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS), led a project to create a free, online course to teach educators and students in the health sciences the foundations of incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) into their professional lives.

The course, part of the CuPID (Community, Pedagogy, Identity, and Difficulty) Project, received a major boost in August when it received a $500,000 Pitt seed grant award. The funding will allow Graff and her colleagues to expand their project to reach more people.

“The CDC has declared racism as a public health emergency, and the health disparities disproportionately affect people who come from communities who are underrepresented in medicine,” says Graff, who is also a student majoring in higher education in the Doctor of Education (EdD) program in the School of Education.

“Their presence is lacking in healthcare providers, and we know that increasing identity concordance between patients and their providers can improve health outcomes and is a way of mitigating health disparities,” she says.

The CuPID project is a collaboration by Graff and other colleagues at SHRS and the School of Dental Medicine. They worked with Pitt’s University Center for Teaching and Learning to create the videos and Pitt Online to design and host the course.

Videos Bring the Topics to Life

CuPID’s curriculum has three modules: social identity and intersectionality; bias, microaggression, and “isms;” and belonging and building inclusive communities. The content is asynchronous and can be completed at the learner’s own pace over the course of six weeks.

“There’s a lot of the School of Education that’s in here,” says Graff. “The project was inspired by the things I learned in the EdD program.”

While CuPID isn’t the first online course to offer a DEI primer, the project stands out in several respects.

First, CuPID develops content for specific units at Pitt. The pilot course was for the health sciences schools. Future courses, for example, may be geared to educators, staff, and students in the schools of business or engineering. Second, the learning modules feature documentary-style interviews with real people at Pitt who share their honest firsthand experiences.

“The learner feels like they’re sitting one-on-one with the person having a cup of coffee. But they are really sitting wherever they are comfortable, at whatever time is convenient for them,” says Graff.

The CuPID project aligns with the dissertation-in-practice that Graff is working on as an EdD student. Her dissertation will explore ways to increase the representation of physician studies students who identify with one or more underrepresented medicine groups.

“I started doing this work before becoming an EdD student, but the School of Education and its mission-vision propelled me forward and was just a breath of fresh air to me,” says Graff.

An Opportunity to Reach More People

So far, 100 people have enrolled in the CuPID Project course, with about half fully completing it.

With the additional funding from Pitt, Graff and her colleagues plan to create five additional unit-specific courses and will also develop a complementary podcast. They are collaborating with Pitt Business and Pitt Greensburg to make their own versions of the CuPID course. Other partners are Pitt IT, Pitt Student Affairs, and Pitt Engineering.

“The eventual goal is that every unit, both academic and nonacademic at Pitt, has their version of the course so folks can hear from their colleagues and learn how these issues affect their specific field,” says Graff.

By creating videos that can be reused indefinitely, the CuPID Project will reduce the need for people who identify with an underrepresented group to be asked again and again to reshare their experiences.

“DEI programs often rely on small groups to foster connection and learning, but this approach may be burdensome for participants who identify with marginalized communities because they are expected to share their experiences to teach folks who identify with dominant communities,” says Graff. “This burden has been named the ‘invisible tax.’ We can’t continue to tax some members of our Pitt community for the benefit of others to advance DEI education.”

Graff also hopes the CuPID Project can alleviate fears her colleagues and students have about stepping into the DEI space.

“My advice to students is don’t  be nervous, just try. The work can be intimidating if you come from privileged identities. But I found that it’s so much more rewarding to come to campus when I can be my full self and can work with people who can also be their full selves.”

The CuPID Project Leadership Team

In addition to Graff, the leadership team of the CuPID Project includes:

  • Robin Albright, instruction designer in the Next Generation Learning Initiatives, University Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Santa Pastorius, instruction designer for Pitt Online, Center for Teaching and Learning
  • John Guinane, media producer, University Center for Teaching and Learning
  • Adriana Modesto, professor and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Social Justice, School of Dental Medicine
  • Karthik Hariharan, assistant professor and director of anatomy, School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences (SHRS)
  • Kathryn Reed, assistant professor and vice chair for equity, inclusion and community engagement, SHRS Department of Physician Assistant Studies
  • Lilcelia Williams, postdoctoral associate, SHRS Department of Occupational Therapy