All of Us Researcher Ambassadors Share Their Why

December 15, 2022
Headshots of TJ Exford, Ph.D.; Caitlin Dreisbach Ph.D, R.N.; Humberto López Castillo, M.D., Ph.D.; Ky’Era Actkins, Ph.D.

From top left, All of Us Researcher Ambassadors Dr. TJ Exford, Dr. Caitlin Dreisbach, Dr. Humberto López Castillo, and Dr. Ky’Era Actkins. 

The All of Us Researcher Ambassadors are tireless advocates for the All of Us Research Program. Each year, they participate in dozens of events that reach thousands of researchers interested in registering to use the Researcher Workbench. Along with other All of Us initiatives, their efforts have increased the number of registered researchers from about 1,300 to more than 3,750 over the past year.       

We caught up with four of the current ambassadors—Ky’Era Actkins, Ph.D.; Humberto López Castillo, M.D., Ph.D.; Caitlin Dreisbach Ph.D, R.N.; and TJ Exford, Ph.D.—to learn why they believe in the program. They emphasized that access to the All of Us dataset can empower researchers and, ultimately, further health equity. 

Powering Health Research  

The ambassadors feel that the powerful cloud-based platform and All of Us dataset can support many kinds of research questions from institutions across the nation.  

Faculty at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) often have more limited financial resources and less time available for research than their counterparts at other research universities. Dr. Exford, an assistant professor of kinesiology at North Carolina A&T State University, said that having access to the All of Us dataset helps level the playing field for HBCU researchers like herself.  

Dr. López Castillo, an assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences at the University of Central Florida (UCF), has conducted a series of seminars and presentations on All of Us throughout the university. He emphasizes to his colleagues that the All of Us dataset is one of the largest and most diverse of its kind. Registered researchers can gain access to many types of data through the Workbench, including data from electronic health records, surveys, Fitbit devices, and more.       

Dr. López Castillo said, “All of Us is a unique dataset because virtually any research question can be answered. Even if it can’t be answered directly, researchers can find variables related to that question.”   

Dr. Actkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said the dataset can complement other sources of information. “I work with a lot of people who use the All of Us dataset to validate or replicate other findings. Comparing previous study findings to a large dataset like All of Us helps researchers understand if their findings are accurate.”  

Training the Next Generation of Researchers      

The ambassadors also noted that the All of Us data and tools can be easily incorporated into undergraduate and graduate instruction. Being able to work with real data empowers students to pursue impactful health research projects. 

This year, Dr. Exford received a grant to mentor student researchers who are using the All of Us dataset. One of her students recently accepted a summer internship at the University of Utah. “I know conducting research with the All of Us dataset helped her feel more confident when applying for the Utah program,” she said.       

Dr. López Castillo has also incorporated the All of Us dataset into his mentorship practices. He is working with a medical student at UCF who is examining HIV infection and cardiovascular disease among sexual and gender minority populations. He is also mentoring an undergraduate student who is investigating whether heart attacks affect Hispanic people differently than other populations. Dr. López Castillo described the Workbench’s interface as “user-friendly” and said that it enables his students to work confidently with the All of Us dataset.  

Promoting Health Equity     

The ambassadors also use the All of Us dataset to fuel their own research projects. They believe that the size, scope, diversity, and accessibility of the All of Us dataset can help researchers conduct studies that contribute to furthering health equity.  

Dr. Actkins has shared with other researchers how the Workbench can be used to investigate and address health disparities, working in collaboration with program participants who generously share their information for research.  

Dr. Actkins echoed these themes in a recent researcher testimonial while discussing her research on women’s health conditions: “We want to make sure that we’re accurately representing the communities we’re trying to help…We have to build up that trust. We have to have these conversations. We have to be transparent about what we’re doing, what we’re trying to find and really start to establish a relationship, partnership.”      

WATCH: All of Us Researcher Ambassador, Dr. Ky'Era Actkins, explains why the All of Us Researcher Workbench is a valuable tool for discovery in women’s health and disparities research.

Like Dr. Actkins, Dr. Dreisbach, a newer researcher ambassador and an assistant professor of nursing and data science at the University of Rochester, studies women’s health. Specifically, she examines how data science can be used to make better clinical assessments during pregnancy.  

“By providing a rich set of data for underrepresented individuals, All of Us gives us an opportunity to access data to investigate novel questions about individuals who identify as women and their reproductive health,” said Dr. Dreisbach.  

For Dr. López Castillo, one of the biggest draws of the program is its efforts to engage people who have been left out of research in the past. “Partnering with participants from communities that are typically underrepresented in health research is essential to moving personalized medicine forward.”

Whether they're conducting research, mentoring students, or speaking to others about the program, the All of Us researcher ambassadors demonstrate the power of the Researcher Workbench to drive equitable health research every day.

This article appears in the December 2022 issue of All of Us Research Roundup. Subscribe to receive future issues of the bimonthly researcher newsletter.

View the full December edition of the All of Us Research Roundup here.

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