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Harnessing the energy of three states

August 10, 2023
By: Michele Hujber

Health is one of the most pressing issues in the U.S. Now, thanks to National Science Foundation's Type I NSF Engine development awards, teams throughout the U.S. will be focusing on technology-based solutions to this issue. This week we highlight three SSTI members whose NSF Engine Awards concentrate on health. These include Emory University’s project to advance health equity and diagnostic technologies (SSTI member Georgia Tech is also on this team), The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s (a health policy center administratively housed within SSTI member The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences) project to promote fair health and economic outcomes in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, and Washington University-St. Louis’ project to advance neuroscience technologies to improve cognitive wellness.

A tri-state challenge

The lower Mississippi Delta is one of the most left behind areas in the U.S. Parts of the Delta located in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana have the highest poverty levels and worst health statistics of any region. The Covid pandemic intensified the region's health care and food access challenges, and the region has seen less benefit from the nation’s scientific and technological advances.

There have been efforts by individual states to deal with the critical issues in the Delta. Still, there have been few, if any, projects involving multiple states joining forces and contributing their resources to help Delta residents across state boundaries. "We see an opportunity for the three states to join together and use this opportunity as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring the three states together to tackle issues in the Mississippi Delta," said Dr. Joe Thompson, president and CEO of ACHI[1] and principal investigator for the award.

There are six partners, two from each state. In addition to ACHI, partners include:

  • the Rural Health Partnership, a coalition of rural hospitals in Arkansas,
  • the Delta Health Alliance, a federally qualified community health system in Mississippi
  • Hope, a minority-owned community development finance institute in Mississippi,
  • the Louisiana Public Health Institute, and
  • Southern University, a historically African American University that runs the state’s agricultural cooperative extension program.

“We have policy, hospitals, primary care, financing, agriculture, and network development,” Thompson said. In addition to the six partners, there are about 30 collaborators who have committed to participating in the planning process.

What they hope to accomplish

Thompson emphasizes that only about half the area in each state is in the Delta Region. Thus, each state has resources in other areas that they can apply to help the Delta Region. "Northwest Arkansas has one of the most booming economies in the nation, but the Delta region has not benefited in the technological or scientific and entrepreneurial boom that we've seen in other parts of the state," he said.

The innovations they hope to bring to the region will build upon an existing shared ownership model for rice production at the Riceland Cooperative. “Riceland’s shared ownership structure serves as a model that could inform the development of a new and innovative venture,” Thompson said. “One innovation we’re thinking about is harnessing the educational, scientific, and technological prowess of our agriculturally oriented universities to develop climate-tolerant crops that would thrive in the region.”

A new entrepreneurial model could involve food distribution. Thompson noted several examples in Arkansas and nationwide that developed new entrepreneurial delivery options in response to the COVID pandemic. In the Delta, a small community in Mississippi formed a company to distribute food from the nearest source, 25 miles away. The area has an opportunity to help increase food access and teach other entrepreneurs how to use this business model.

Increasing access to telemedicine is another focus of the project. "With telemedicine and some of the new monitoring activities for chronic diseases, we think there are some health opportunities for technological development, scientific evaluation, and deployment in the area," Thompson said.

Cooperation is critical

Thompson emphasizes that the cooperation of the three states is critical to making changes in the Delta region. "Unless a group like ours can harness that energy so that there's an integrated approach, you'll have a different strategy that stops at the Mississippi River on my Arkansas' eastern and Mississippi's western border or at the borderline between Arkansas and Louisiana," Thompson said.

"We'll make something happen," Thompson said. "We'll see whether it meets the ultimate goals of the Type 2 Engine. But we're going to give it a good shot."


[1] ACHI, which is sponsored by UAMS and three other entities, functions and operates independently except for legal activities, hiring and firing ACHI’s director, and obtaining budget approval, which is the responsibility of UAMS and its three other sponsors. Federal grants pass through UAMS.

nsf engines, health, innovation, regions