Michael D. Brown, Ph.D., FAHA, FACSM, FNAK recently joined the faculty of the School of Kinesiology as part of a Strategic Cluster Hire in Health Disparities initiated by the Office of the Provost. The purpose of the cluster hire is “to improve health in the community, state, region, nation, and world by identifying, understanding, and addressing health needs and health disparities. A special focus of the cluster is on the disadvantaged segments of these populations, which are often underserved by existing health care systems due to historically unequal treatment or injustice.”
Dr. Brown’s area of focus is on hypertension in African Americans, and the role of exercise as a preventive and treatment strategy for hypertension.
“Growing up in San Diego, my friends and I were really focused on sports,” Brown said. “We were athletes. Football, basketball, track; we just wanted to play sports. I gravitated toward track, and by high school I was one of the top two or three sprinters in the city and won a scholarship to Long Beach State.”
When Brown found that on the larger competitive stage he was a middle-of-the-pack sprinter, his focus shifted toward academics.
“I was going the pre-med route, but then I met an exercise physiologist who invited me to sit in on his journal club, and that’s when the research bug bit me,” Brown recalled. “I worked with him as an undergraduate, but then had an opportunity to intern in a cardiac rehab facility and see heart disease and hypertension up close. This was while I was earning my Master’s in Exercise Physiology.”
As is the case with so many researchers, Brown developed a personal interest in hypertension when his grandmother, who was unable to control her blood pressure, died of a stroke. His father has struggled with hypertension as well, and Brown said he has his own ongoing fight with “high normal.”
“As part of the strategic cluster hire I am able to work with outstanding Auburn colleagues from areas ranging from sociology to nursing to hard-core science, as we have a common goal of addressing inequities in access and outcome in healthcare and wellness,” Brown said. “I really like the concept of people from different areas working on a common problem and I have very much enjoyed the people I get to work with both in the cluster and here in the School of Kinesiology.”
One of Brown’s Kinesiology colleagues, and a researcher he has long admired, is Bruce Gladden, director of the Muscle Physiology Lab in the School of Kinesiology.
“Dr. Michael Brown is a landmark hire in the School of Kinesiology and more broadly, for Auburn University,” Gladden said. “Dr. Brown is nationally recognized for his research on hypertension; it is particularly noteworthy that his work spans the range from the cellular and subcellular to real people. This allows him to explore mechanisms and then to apply that basic research to real world problems. Already in the few short weeks he has been here, it is obvious that Dr. Brown is focused, disciplined, and at the same time, a friendly colleague who readily leads by both expertise and example.”
Brown’s work focuses on cells in the blood vessels, and his research includes both human and cell models.
“My lab has some very sophisticated blood pressure measurement systems,” he explained. “For example, we can record a subject’s blood pressure as it fluctuates over a 24-hour period. Since blood vessels control the flow of blood through the body, I research how these vessels work, how we can control them, how we can relax them. And I also look specifically at interventions – particularly exercise protocols – that can make blood vessels healthier and thus reduce hypertension. My work has broad implications, though I am particularly focused on interventions that can improve hypertension in African-Americans.”
But Brown’s vision goes beyond basic bench science. He sees inequities not just in people and their health, but also in who does the research.
“Minority researchers are less likely to get grants,” he stated. “If I could do anything in the world, I would manage large training grants and train the next generation of scientists, and especially those from underrepresented backgrounds. It is not only important to treat health disparities, but also the disparities in who does the research to make those breakthoughs. That’s just very important to me.”
Brown emphasized that the School of Kinesiology is very supportive of those efforts, and he cites colleague Jared Russell’s successful efforts to recruit underrepresented researchers to Auburn’s campus through his Future Scholars Summer Research Bridge Program.
“I’d like to take Jared’s efforts to the next level and really train those scientists,” he said. “We need to do that.”
On the positive side, Brown, a prolific grant writer, said the National Institutes of Health may be peaking on treatment grants, and is now turning more and more toward prevention.
“That’s one of the positive underlying aspects of the Affordable Care Act,” Brown said. “There’s a real emphasis there to keep people well, and do prevention, instead of treating advanced cases of preventable diseases. What I’m doing in terms of exercise interventions to help prevent hypertension could be done in so many different areas. There’s money to be made by treating sick people and pushing pharmaceuticals, but we’ll be better off in the long run to work toward prevention. I’m very excited to be able to do just that here at Auburn.”