A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program
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Shawn
Bediako

PhD

I don’t think in terms of lack or limitations. I will always root for the underdog.

Most professors choose to take graduate students with a 3.9 grade point average. Shawn Bediako, however, claims his “magic number” is 2.8. He sees something of himself in students on the verge between a C and B — the students who are scrappy and don’t want to give up. Even more specific, Shawn seeks students with explicit interests in taking their research back to their communities, whether it’s Southeast Asia or Appalachian Kentucky.

Bringing Rising Scholar-Activists from C Grades to Dean’s List

From a small, rural town in Arkansas, Shawn became the first African American to earn tenure in University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s department of psychology.

“A lot of the story of my life is somewhat improbable considering where I came from,” Shawn attests. “Despite the odds, I had an indomitable spirit given to me by my parents and community.”

In turn, Shawn encourages students with particular interests in sociocultural approaches to health behaviors to apply for graduate opportunities in his Human Services Psychology program.

“A lot of my students want to go back and do research in the communities they’re from,” Shawn explains. “I want to equip them to do that at a world-class level.”

Crushing Stigma Through New Connections

Shawn’s belief in the underdog also filters into the sickle cell disease (SCD) research he has embraced as his life’s work. While he does not have the disease, he believes he shares something in common with SCD patients.

“The lives and experiences of people with sickle cell disease are not on people’s radars,” Shawn attests. “I can identify with being marginalized, taken for granted, or told that you don’t matter.”

Through a 2008 New Connections grant, Shawn was able to explore data from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute on the biological, social, and psychological experiences of those living with SCD.

“Without support from New Connections, I probably never would have been able to explore the data in this light,” Shawn claims.

Ever since then, he has been able to focus his extensive SCD research on his particular interest: social stigma that surrounds SCD, especially African-American patients. Currently, Shawn is exploring how the feeling of being stigmatized impacts the health of those living with the condition, as well as the factors that inform public attitudes toward people with SCD.

Gaining Confidence as an Established Scholar

In addition to the research support that New Connections gave Shawn, the grant also provided him with new confidence.

“I used to question whether or not I was ‘good enough’ to be an elite-level scholar and social scientist,” Shawn recalls. “Once I started applying the techniques I learned through New Connections, however, I became too busy with being productive and didn’t have time to dwell on the ‘am I good enough’ question.”

Some of these results included increased publications, networking, success in grant writing, growth in leadership, speaking opportunities — even being selected by former Governor Martin O’Malley to serve on Maryland’s Statewide Steering Committee on Comprehensive Services for Adults with Sickle Cell Disease, a committee that Shawn has chaired since 2010.

But if you ask Shawn what accolade means the most to him, he would say it was receiving the 2014 Champion Award from the Sickle Cell Disease Association of America.

“It was patients who nominated me for that award,” Shawn remarks. “It validated the intent that I’ve tried to make a difference in their lives.”