Jerica Berge, PhD, MPH, LMFT, CFLE, a professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the U of M Medical School, was awarded the 2023 Distinguished McKnight University Professorship. This program recognizes outstanding faculty members recently achieving full professor status. 

Dr. Berge continues to change the landscape of how behavioral medicine is used in a cutting-edge way to improve our knowledge of child and family health and well-being.

What does being awarded the 2023 Distinguished McKnight University Professorship mean to you personally and professionally?

Dr. Berge: Professionally, being awarded a Distinguished McKnight University Professorship is one of the highlights of my career. It is the highest honor you can receive beyond that of a tenured full professor. I was told that I was the first professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health ever to receive a McKnight professorship, so for me, it also honors my department. Additionally, I think it honors my collaborators. So much of my success is about who I surround myself with, including faculty, staff, students, patients, community members and others who partner with me in this amazing work. 

Personally, this award is a statement to me about my stellar colleagues (internally and externally) and my department chair, who nominated me and wrote letters of support for me. I feel acknowledged, appreciated and supported in my contributions and work.

What led you to pursue your research to achieve whole-person health (i.e., physical, mental, behavioral, social) for all people?

Dr. Berge: My research agenda is motivated by my conviction that achieving optimal health for all people requires that we understand them from a holistic lens, including their physical, mental, behavioral and social health. Additionally, the multiple contexts in which people traverse in their daily lives, including their own individual behaviors, relationships, communities and the larger system/structural society, need to be examined to identify key impacts of whole-person health. Overall, my research focuses on addressing multi-level (i.e., individual, interpersonal, community, societal/structural) determinants of whole-person health (i.e., physical, mental, behavioral, social) to achieve health equity. My passion for researching whole-person health stems from many influences in my life, but a major one was my clinical work. As I worked with individual patients and families, I realized there were so many things we didn't know about how to help people achieve optimal health, including systemic barriers that get in the way. My research aims to identify these risk and protective factors and then reduce the risks and amplify the protective factors so that all people can achieve whole-person health equity. 

What do you love about being a professor/researcher at UMN?

Dr. Berge: I love the variety of things I get to do as a professor. On a day-to-day basis, I get to go from doing cutting-edge research that leads to evidence-based care, to clinical work with patients and families, to teaching students, residents, and postdocs, to meetings with leaders to make important decisions, to writing papers or grants, to giving a presentation, and to working with collaborators across the medical school and university to make a difference. The work across clinical care, research and teaching domains is especially energizing because they all inform and simultaneously depend on each other, such that advancements in one of the domains lead to advancements in the other. This cyclical nature of academia is both exciting and challenging, which brings a lot of fulfillment to the work that I do.

What are your goals for training the next generation of student researchers?

Dr. Berge: I utilize mentoring across the academic life course approach because I want to ensure that there is a next generation of faculty in academic medicine and research. It is important to build a diverse pipeline of future researchers and faculty by starting in high school (and even middle and elementary schools) and with undergraduate students to get them excited about working in academia and then provide tools and resources to help them succeed as they move into graduate, postgraduate and then eventually faculty positions. I am highly committed to developing careers for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) trainees. I have been awarded 12 National Institutes of Health (NIH) diversity supplements on my NIH grants to provide the infrastructure and resources needed to provide both the training opportunities and the tools/resources needed to be successful. Then, we also need to be urgently paying attention to the diversity of our faculty at mid- and senior levels to be able to provide the mentoring needed to the next generation of researchers. Ultimately, my goal is for us to have a diverse pipeline of students and faculty who will continue to advance academic research, clinical care and teaching.

Where do you see the field going in the future? 

Dr. Berge: We are in an exciting time of ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion in the systems that we work, which simultaneously helps us do better clinical care, education and research. Diversity is a fundamental tenet of any successful "system," and we need to work towards comprehensive diversity--diversity in race/ethnicity, gender, age, ability, disciplinary backgrounds, etc. While this may seem like a big undertaking, we are ready and equipped to do this, we have some of the most innovative and cutting-edge research tools, faculty and leaders to make this happen. In my research area of whole-person health specifically, we are working on using our state-of-the-art measures such as mHealth technology and geospatial measures to understand momentary factors such as discrimination and harassment that impact whole-person health (e.g., cardiovascular risk, depression, eating and physical activity behaviors, social isolation) in order to create multi-level interventions to promote whole person health equity. I think right now is one of the most exciting and important times to get this right--to create inclusive systems in which people learn, conduct research, teach, provide clinical care, and partner with patients and community and this will also lead to true joy and satisfaction in our work.