PHHP Research Innovation Fund awards grants for AI and direct clinical impact projects

By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow

Throughout research labs across the University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions, faculty members are accelerating solutions to today’s biggest health challenges. The college is proud to offer funding support to help faculty, particularly early career researchers, on their path to discovery.

The PHHP Research Innovation Fund  supports pilot testing or feasibility studies that help position faculty to reach their research goals and obtain grants from external agencies.  The program is organized around three major themes: artificial intelligence, direct clinical impact and general topics in public health and health professions. The PHHP Office of Research has announced three new awards to faculty members who are pursuing projects in the AI and direct clinical impact categories: Yiyang Liu, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the department of epidemiology; Hollea Ryan, Ph.D., Au.D., a clinical associate professor and Au.D. program director in the department of speech, language, and hearing sciences; and Rebecca Willcocks, Ph.D., a research assistant professor in the department of physical therapy.

YiYang Liu
Dr. Yiyang Liu. Photo by Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow.

For Liu, the grant will help her achieve a long-term research goal: implementing clinical decision support tools in outpatient settings to help providers better identify women who may benefit from HIV testing and the HIV prevention medication, PrEP. The research enhancement program will help her achieve this goal of effective and sustainable HIV prevention services through the building of new collaborations, strengthening of her machine learning and artificial intelligence skills, and generating critically preliminary results for future National Institutes of Health funding.

“One of the first projects I led during my postdoc training was to develop an EHR-based HIV computable phenotype to identify a cohort of people with HIV from OneFlorida data. Since then, I have been brainstorming different ways to utilize this EHR-based HIV cohort to improve HIV prevention and care efforts,” Liu said. “The results from the study funded by (this grant) will provide critical preliminary information for my R34 application to develop an EHR-based HIV risk prediction model tailored for women and to pilot test it as a clinical decision support tool.”

Hollea Ryan
Dr. Hollea Ryan.

Ryan’s newly funded study will advance her research on tinnitus and hearing loss among patients with COVID-19, specifically those with long COVID., Many clinicians have been reporting anecdotes of patients with a COVID diagnosis expressing an emergence or worsening of tinnitus and/or hearing loss, but data are lacking. Ryan hopes that data to support noted patient experiences from clinical settings will enhance future grant proposals for outside funding agencies.

“Having pilot data will allow for us to apply for larger grants to further explore outcomes of long COVID as it relates to auditory conditions. Additionally, this grant will support us providing intervention services for patients with tinnitus. Over time, we hope to document that therapy for tinnitus helps reduce or alleviate symptoms experienced by patients with long COVID,” Ryan said. “Furthermore, as this is a clinically focused research project, the vision is for our program to expand so that it can provide effective, research-based tinnitus treatment to the Gainesville community at large.”

Rebecca Willcocks
Dr. Rebecca Willcocks.

Willcocks’ research interests lie in improving bone care for individuals with muscular dystrophy, specifically Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Individuals with Duchenne muscular dystrophy often experience fragility fractures, pain and increased disability as a result of both the disease and the corticosteroid medications used to treat the disease. The funding Willcocks receives from the Research Innovation Fund will help her team  develop a strong machine learning algorithm to measure bones captured on an existing dataset of muscle MRIs, which will provide preliminary data to compete for funding from outside agencies.

“To secure funding to answer these important clinical questions, we need to demonstrate that our machine learning algorithm performs well and will allow us to mine this database. The PHHP funding is critical to developing a strong machine learning algorithm to compete for external funding,” Willcocks said. “I’m devoted to helping improve bone care for individuals with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and one of the most valuable ways I can do that is by making it possible to learn from data that already exists. Advances in AI have made this work possible, and I’m really excited to take advantage of them to help prevent fractures for individuals with Duchenne muscular dystrophy.”

Unlike many other grant programs that may take months, or even a year, to respond with decisions on grant applications, the PHHP Research Innovation Fund makes decisions and provides funds of up to $25,000 per award within four weeks of submission.

All faculty members with primary appointments in PHHP may submit proposals to the PHHP Research Innovation Fund. Priority is given to early career faculty, but faculty of all ranks — assistant, associate and full — are eligible. Collaboration across PHHP departments is highly desired and collaboration with other colleges is encouraged. More information and application instructions are available on the PHHP Research website.