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Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Esa Davis

When Esa Davis first saw a chart of obesity rates broken out by race and gender while in medical school at UMDNJ-New Jersey, she was startled. The chart showed that while obesity rates were rising in the general population, they were rising much faster among African-American women. “It really startled me, because African-American women were off the charts, but African American men weren’t nearly as high,” Davis told us. “So, what’s predisposing African-American women to be more obese?”

This question became a central one in Davis’ career, which has focused largely on obesity, particularly the causes of obesity among low-income, African-American women. As a student in medical school, Davis knew that she wanted to do more than run a private practice—she wanted to do work that would look at health issues on a larger scale. One of her mentors, a former Clinical Scholar, suggested that she apply to the Program, where she would be able to do innovative research on some of the most pressing health issues of our time.

At the urging of her mentor, Davis applied and was accepted to the Clinical Scholars program, which she began in 2002 at the Johns Hopkins site. Her research focused on obesity and how it was affected by race, class and gender. One of her primary research projects looked at racial and ethnic disparities in weight management among obese women. She conducted a series of focus groups with obese women, where they were asked to discuss barriers and challenges they had faced when managing their weight. The research also looked at what women needed to manage their weight effectively.

The research Davis conducted as a Clinical Scholar helped contribute to a shift in the obesity conversation and the way weight-loss programs are being developed. Davis’ research discovered that that there are many reasons that women found it challenging to lose weight—from lack of time, to trouble maintaining weight loss, to disliking so-called “diet” foods. When formulating policies to deter obesity and encourage weight loss, “one method will not fit all,” Davis says. “You can’t just ask people to exercise more. The women we spoke to knew how to lose weight, but the source of their weight came from so many viewpoints that one method wasn’t successful.”

Davis credits the Clinical Scholars program with being a major catalyst for her career development. “It gave me a foundation in research and policy that complemented my clinical training and developed my critical thinking skills,” Davis says. “The mentors are top in their field, but they’re also very passionate about teaching you how to develop your career.”

After her fellowship ended, Davis found that the Clinical Scholars network was essential in moving her career forward. Through the Clinical Scholars network, she found a position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Medicine, Division of Research, at the School of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Davis has continued to do research on women and obesity, including researching how weight change in pregnancy is related to the development of obesity and diabetes.

”The national network is incredible,” Davis says. “When I was looking for positions, everywhere I interviewed had a former Clinical Scholar in some position, which means that they understood my training and where I was coming from.”

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