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Confronting racialized medicine through education

The winner of the inaugural Black Inventors Hall of Fame (BIHOF) Design Thinking Collegiate Challenge has been announced: Congratulations to the TU Trailblazers on their impressive victory.

The goal of the competition was to spend the spring semester developing game-changing answers to societal issues that disproportionately impact the African American community.

young woman smiling while holding a giant prize check
Star Okolie

The TU Trailblazers comprises five students pursuing various disciplines:

  • Star Okolie (double majoring in sociology and biochemistry, pre-med)
  • Grace Clark (double majoring in sociology and psychology)
  • Jasmine Johnson (majoring in management)
  • Marissa Ramsey (BA ’21 – sociology)
  • Liz Williams (double majoring in sociology and political science)

Led by Okolie, the TU Trailblazers developed a proposal to address racialized medicine through the creation of a course for undergraduate students intending to pursue medical studies. “Our guiding mission was to tackle the social determinants of health and the structural racism that influence health outcomes,” Okolie said.

False beliefs and medical practice

The course Okolie and her teammates developed was informed by a 2016 PNAS study that found an inverse relationship between empathy and the endorsement of false racial beliefs. The study’s authors also found that that medical students who endorsed such beliefs directly translated them into their medical practices, such as prescribing less or lower quality pain relief out of the erroneous conviction that Black people do not feel pain the same way as whites.

In order to better understand this context, the TU Trailblazers conducted a survey and interviews to examine the influence of a formal sociology education on pre-med students’ levels of empathy and false racial beliefs. Based on the data they collected, the team designed a course to help promote empathy and correct false beliefs about biological differences between African Americans and whites.

a scientific poster for a presentation entitled Sociology Education, Empathy, and Racial Beliefs among Pre-Med StudentsAssistant Professor of Sociology Rachel Head served as the faculty mentor on this project. “This challenge gave the TU Trailblazers the opportunity to apply the research skills they’ve been learning in their courses and to find a creative solution to the problem of racialized medicine,” remarked Head. “As the students’ faculty mentor, I was so impressed by what they were able to create and the passion they brought to the project. The TU Trailblazers are grateful to the Black Inventors Hall of Fame for the chance to marry analysis with design-thinking. And I am grateful for the opportunity to see what a diverse and bright group of young women can do when they are challenged to address a pressing social problem.”

“I would like to personally thank Dr. Head for letting me know about this opportunity as I was developing my research project for the spring semester,” said Okolie. “I would also like to thank the Black Inventors Hall of Fame for the opportunity to present these findings and I am both honored and glad to have so many recognize the importance of this research.”

Design-thinking in action

a man in a black suit and a young woman in a white dressPrior to embarking on their research and development, teams were required to participate in a design-thinking bootcamp. During a four-hour ZOOM session, BIHOF Executive Director James Howard shared the basic tenets of the design-thinking process and helped participants understand how to frame their projects around the core components of the design-thinking problem-solving methodology: empathy, definition and ideation/big idea proposal.

The competition’s three judges were unanimous in awarding the prize to The University of Tulsa’s team, with one of the judges noting, “this team had both survey findings and interview findings that were relevant and helpful to develop their recommended solution for their project. The survey findings and their displayed structure were particularly compelling. . . . Each of the recommendations are viable and in some cases provide low stakes changes that could be easily implemented.”

Reflecting on the TU Trailblazers’ winning submission, Howard remarked that “African Americans and other people of color face major, systemic challenges and unfulfilled needs in several essential areas, including education, housing and health care. It was in the latter area – health care – that the plan by the TU Trailblazers really stood out as offering workable solutions to a chronic issue surrounding access and equity. Okolie and her teammates applied rigorous design-thinking to this complex area, and the result was a ‘big idea’ that impressed the judges. Most importantly, their plan was rooted in empathy, which, experts all agree, is the heart of excellent design-thinking. These talented young people certainly have great futures in store.”


Studying sociology at TU means you’ll receive close, personal attention from your professors and develop knowledge that is a great foundation for graduate school or careers in law, business, health care, government, teaching social services and an array of other fields.