MolinaCares-funded Michigan Health Equity Challenge selects 10 project finalists

Finalists for the Michigan Health Equity Challenge pose for a group photo in the Paul B. Cornely Room at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

The Michigan Health Equity Challenge recently announced the selection of ten project finalists for the challenge, which aims to engage graduate students at the University of Michigan in developing community-based solutions to health equity challenges in Southeast Michigan.

The Michigan Health Equity Challenge was established through a $100,000 grant from the MolinaCares Accord and Molina Healthcare of Michigan, to the University of Michigan School of Public in the fall of 2023. The school’s Griffith Leadership Center is hosting and managing the program.

“Students possess the vision to offer fresh perspectives and solutions to tackle our most urgent issues,” said F. DuBois Bowman, dean of the University of Michigan School of Public Health, in the November 2023 announcement of the challenge. “With the support of MolinaCares, U-M mentors, and the state’s public health community, students will have the opportunity to fully cultivate their ideas. Thanks to MolinaCares, students who win the Health Equity Challenge will be able to transform their proposals into actionable initiatives, address historical inequities in health care, and change lives.”

The selected finalists will partner with local community-based organizations, applying their multidisciplinary approaches to diverse health and social policy domains. In recognition of their outstanding proposals, each finalist project will be awarded an initial grant of $2,000 and participate in a mentorship and training program scheduled to begin in January and conclude in March 2024.

Later this year, two projects from the challenge will be selected and will receive an additional award of $1,000 and their partner organizations will also receive a grant of up to $50,000 to implement the program.

Learn more about the 10 finalists below and read the finalists’ full bios on the Michigan Health Equity Challenge website.

Wolfgang Bahr and Irving Suarez

School of Public Health, School of Social Work

Project Summary: Developing a program for Latin American immigrants in Michigan to address heart disease through stress management and community health leadership initiatives.

“We aim to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, has equitable access to quality healthcare. This mission resonates with us because we have collectively observed the far-reaching effects of inequality on individuals and communities. It's not just a professional aspiration; it's personal, driven by our experiences and a desire for a fairer, healthier world.”

Wolfgang Bahr is pursuing a dual-degree Master of Social Work in Global Social Work and a Master of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan. Irving Suarez is a first-year graduate student pursuing a Master of Public Health degree in Health Behavior and Health Education.

Mehak Bhansali

School of Public Health

Project Summary: Develop a comprehensive intimate partner violence (IPV)-resource toolkit delivered as a mobile application that will be divided into five IPV-centric resource pillars: law, finance, food and clothing, children, and mental health. The application aims to be a vital tool in advancing health equity by eliminating the complexities women encounter while finding and accessing IPV support resources.

“The socioeconomic disadvantages of families [with limited healthcare access] hinders access to adequate healthcare, leading to disproportionate health issues. [This] inspired me to probe deeper into how the healthcare system could do better to eliminate disparities in healthcare access and ensure equitable opportunities for all.”

Mehak Bhansali is a first-year Master of Public Health student in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Natalie DeLiso & Brooke Troxmondo

Taubman College of Urban Planning & Architecture, School for Environment and Sustainability

Project Summary: Addressing health disparities in Southeastern Michigan by conducting a geospatial analysis of health, social, and environmental indicators which will identify opportunities to implement a series of housing design strategies aimed at improving health outcomes.

“Our ZIP codes still reflect patterns of historical inequitable housing practices which exacerbate health inequalities in our communities. By utilizing a unique and hyper-local map of health, social, and environmental indicators to emphasize the links between the built environment and health, we can make a substantial impact on health equity.”

Natalie DeLiso (she/her) is a Master of Architecture student with a concentration in Design and Health at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Urban Planning & Architecture. Brooke Troxmondo (she/her) is a dual-degree master’s student studying Urban and Regional Planning and Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan.

Eunji Ko

School of Dentistry

Project Summary: This project aims to address oral health disparities among low-income children in Michigan, particularly in Detroit, by bridging communication gaps between dental non-profit organizations, schools, and parents. Through community-level engagement and educational presentations at school events, my initiative aims to instill a shared understanding of oral health's significance, fostering collaborative solutions and promoting behavioral changes.

“Through community-level efforts, I aim to foster collaborative solutions that resonate with local communities, with a focus on conveying the importance of oral health through educational presentations at school events.”

Eunji Ko is a first-year student at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry. 

Xinyu Liang

Ross School of Business

Project Summary: In recognition that many students may face barriers to seeking in-person support for mental health services, such as stigma, shame, or fear of disclosure to parents or teachers, we propose an innovative community-based program that leverages audio-only telehealth and family support. Through this, we aim to bridge these gaps and ensure that mental health consultation is a right, not a privilege.

“I aim to reduce healthcare disparities, particularly in access to mental health care, among marginalized populations. By offering a more affordable and readily available option, which has become a permanent feature since the pandemic, we are dedicated to expanding access to care for low-income populations.”

Xinyu Liang is a PhD candidate in Technology and Operations at the Ross School of Business.

Olivia Morris

Ford School of Public Policy

Project Summary: My proposal aims to address health coverage gaps in Washtenaw County, with a specific focus on the needs of the African-American community aged 65 and above. The interventions include providing tailored information on health coverage, particularly for those dual eligible for Medicare and Medicaid. Additionally, the project involves a critical component of relationship-building and outreach efforts within the African-American community, ensuring effective communication and fostering trust for informed healthcare decision-making.

“Under the Michigan Health Equity Challenge, my aim is to develop program interventions to address the specific needs of the county’s African-American community aged 65 and above (or nearing this age group).”

Olivia Morris is pursuing a master's degree in Public Policy with a focus on healthcare policy reform.

Damilola Olukorede

College of Pharmacy

Project Summary: This project involves the development and deployment of a mobile application in tandem with focused public health awareness efforts to help to promote the active participation and retention of African Americans in cancer clinical trials.

“As an aspiring drug research scientist, I am passionate about improving the participation of African Americans in cancer clinical trials—in alignment with my goal of developing safe and effective therapeutic solutions for all.”

Damilola Olukorede is a first-year Medicinal Chemistry PhD student in the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy.

Sarah Shimizu & L Tantay

School of Social Work

Project Summary: As queer and trans people of color, we see our LGBTQIA+ communities of color in Detroit being harmed by a lack of competent mental healthcare. By partnering with a community based organization in metro-Detroit, we seek to improve access for our communities through capacity building training and direct mental health funding for LGBTQIA+ Detroiters of color.

“The Detroit-Metro area is home to roughly 170,000+ LGBTQIA+ people. People of color are more likely to experience physical health issues due to this, and LGBTQIA+ people of color are less likely to receive therapy, especially youth.”

Sarah Kei Shimizu (any pronouns) and L Tantay (pronouns they/them/theirs) are both pursuing Master’s degrees in Social Work at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

Sarah Small & Alexandra Soos

Medical School, School of Public Health

Project summary: Our project to address the needs of the unhoused and unsheltered community of Washtenaw by conducting a needs assessment and interviewing individuals with lived experience, connecting with local organizations to maximize utilization of services, and providing supplies necessary for survival with a hope to rebuild trust in a community prone to systematic injustice.

“As dual medical-public health students and future primary care physicians and epidemiologists, we believe the current treatment of unhoused people is unacceptable. Our vision is that everyone should have access to the services and housing they desire and do not face the morbidity associated with homelessness.”

Sarah Small (she/her) and Alexandra Soos (she/her) are MD/MPH students at the University of Michigan.

Melissa Zochowski 

Medical School

Project Summary: Collaborating with neurodivergent patients and clinicians, I will develop and implement sensory-friendly, neurodiversity-affirming reproductive healthcare delivery practices.  At increased risk for unintended pregnancy and likely to forego or delay care, neurodivergent individuals of reproductive age represent a significant portion of the unmet need for reproductive healthcare.

“Adequate, high-quality clinical care is inaccessible to vulnerable segments of the population, including neurodivergent individuals. It is important to me to use my professional background to advocate for better health outcomes and quality of life for the neurodivergent members of my family and to improve the quality of life for as many people as possible.”

Melissa K. Zochowski is a PhD candidate in the Health Infrastructures and Learning Systems program in the Department of Learning Health Sciences at the University of Michigan Medical School.