“Be happy, but be as helpful as you can.”
Dr. Claire Townsend Ing carried those words from her father for decades, and this month, it culminated with the 43-year-old receiving a prestigious National Institutes of Health award for its potential impact on the health of thousands of families in Hawaiʻi.
Dr. Ing is the Principal Investigator for “PILI ʻĀina,” a project that works on individual, household, and community levels to educate those at risk for cardiometabolic disorders, which include diabetes, heart attacks, and strokes, all of which are in the top 10 leading causes of death in Hawaiʻi, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I am working on trying to improve the lives of folks in the community who, over decades of colonization and unfair practices, policies, and discrimination, are having adverse health outcomes,” she said.
Dr. Ing’s passion for health, especially those facing health disparities, formed when she was a young girl. Her father is half black and half Okinawan. Her mother was white.
“My dad’s dad passed away when I was 12 or 13,” Ing said. “I knew the health disparities were not due to a difference in work ethic. It wasn’t for a lack of caring. My dad’s dad was from the Mississippi Delta and lied about his age in 1941 to get out of the delta. He ended up getting shipped out during the war. So it’s not like one grandad sat on the couch and ate bon-bons while the other ran marathons. One grandad had a harder road ahead of him because of who he was, when he was born, and where he was born.”
Growing up outside Washington D.C, in Maryland, Ing went to Pomona College in Southern California. After graduating with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology, she spent two years in Okinawa, Japan teaching English, learning culture, and getting to know her grandmother’s family. Realizing she wanted to make a positive impact through her work, she pursued further education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and got her Master’s in Public Health, but she didn’t know where to go next.
“I decided I needed to get a job. One of the first places where I could find a job was at KKV, Kōkua Kalihi Valley,” she said. “I thought, ‘well, I enjoyed living in Okinawa; maybe Hawaiʻi would be a good fit for me.'”
She moved to Hawaiʻi in 2006 on a one-year contract and has stayed ever since because she sees the powerful and positive impact she can make by bringing health messages to communities that need it the most.
“At the end of the day, the week, or the year, I feel good about the time, energy, and effort that I spent on my work,” Ing said.
A turning point in Dr. Ing’s career was when she met up with Dr. Joseph Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula, Professor and Chair of Native Hawaiian Health at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine. Dr. Kaholokula mentored her and encouraged her to grow the PILI ʻĀina Project to tackle the underlying issues around cardiometabolic disease.
“If cardiometabolic diseases could be solved by simply telling people to eat healthier, then we would have solved it long ago,” Ing said. “It’s a matter of lifestyle. It’s a matter of the ability to afford and access the type of healthy lifestyle that you want. It’s a matter of being able to prioritize it. It is about the individual, the family, and the community.”
Naturally, PILI ʻĀina focuses on healthy eating, being physically active, and managing stress and time but goes the extra mile by introducing families to gardening and growing produce and fruits. It expands to the community as a whole, hosting cooking demonstration events that will be open community wide. Additionally, the project plans to help the community to navigate the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and other benefits.
“It’s not just targeting folks, telling them to eat healthier, but giving them the tools to do it,” Ing said. “We provide resources for their whole family and the whole community so that the decisions that they’re trying to make in improving health can be that much easier to make because the entire family’s on board, and their community is moving in that direction as well.”
The PILI Lifestyle Program, on which PILI ‘Āina is built, has already improved the lives of thousands of families and can reach hundreds of thousands more who are most vulnerable to cardiometabolic disease. The National Institutes of Health took notice and elevated Dr. Ing to the top tier of researchers, awarding her a Research Project Grant (R01.) It is the original and historically oldest grant mechanism used by NIH. The R01 provides support for health-related research and development based on the mission of the NIH.
“I think a lot of recognition needs to go to my mentor, Dr. Kaholokula, and our community partners at Kula No Na Poʻe Hawaiʻi, Pili Group, and Kapolei Community Development Corporation, whom we’ve worked with for over a decade.” Dr. Ing said. “This grant is a testament to the partnerships they’ve nurtured through their work. I feel privileged to have come into the fold, been able to offer my ideas and learn from others, and be able to help orchestrate this.”
As she looks back on the health impacts she’s made in the lives of so many in Hawaiʻi, Dr. Ing realizes she’s fulfilled the wishes of her father passed on to her decades before.
“Trying to understand, address, and eliminate health disparities is not just the helpful thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”