As the newly appointed Associate Chair of Research Programs in the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Michigan (U-M), Professor James E. Aikens, Ph.D. has spent decades working as a health psychologist focused on health promotion research in the clinic. He also has spent a great deal of time investigating the use of technology to empower patients to self-manage chronic conditions like depression and diabetes, while also mentoring other research faculty.
Aikens’ passion for research to improve patient care comes naturally. Growing up, his mother was a registered nurse and his father was an academic chemist. His interests were diverse, but, according to him, “Psychology was usually in the forefront. Much of my early education was on the ground, in the trenches, working as a group home supervisor, camp counselor, and in any other way that I could do direct service.”
Although he flirted with the idea of pursuing a creative career as a fine arts painter at Alfred University, a small educational institution in upstate New York, Aikens soon decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Scientific/Experimental Psychology.
Driven by his interest in the field of Clinical Psychology, he went on to receive an M.A. and a Ph.D. in Medical (Clinical) Psychology from the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB). Following his graduate studies, he interned in Clinical Health Psychology at the University of Chicago; completed his fellowship at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation; and began working as an Assistant Clinical Professor at the University of Chicago’s Psychiatry Department.
However, the longer he worked in specialized clinical settings such as Neurology and Psychiatry, the more he became frustrated with the lack of opportunity to more wholistically meet patients’ needs. He soon realized that patients’ best interests and outcomes could be maximally improved with whole-patient approaches typical to Family Medicine.
“Within a few years of arriving at the University of Chicago and their specialty-centric care, I was attracted to the immediate relevancy of primary care … where you could work on patient-valued health outcomes across time,” he said.
This search ultimately led him to U-M’s Department of Family Medicine, which he has called home since 2000.
“As soon as I arrived at U-M, I was amazed at the passion, creativity, and humility that was clearly evident in the entire team,” he said. “It was a very open-minded, dynamic and innovative group. Everyone was focusing on issues that mattered to patients and to clinicians.”
Over the years, Aikens rose through the ranks, becoming a full Professor in 2016, and was appointed Associate Chair for Research Programs in July 2022. In this role, he hopes to help faculty function within increasingly competitive funding environments.
“This is best done by recognizing our core strengths – Mixed Methods, MDisability and Quantitative Statistics,” he says. Aikens is also eager to support innovative research initiatives in the areas of women’s health, cancer, antiracism, big data, behavioral health and technological advancements.
“We have a large research enterprise that we must constantly fuel, as we remain mindful that it gives a great return on investment,” Aikens said.
At the same time, he is passionate about cultivating a positive work environment where all researchers thrive, no matter their area of expertise. “We have to very carefully focus on infrastructure support, mentorship, and the growth and empowerment of all faculty and staff,” he said.
This all-encompassing view includes a special emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion in recruitment, as well as maintaining the department’s status as research leaders and the best, he added.
“There’s enormous innovation in family medicine research,” Aikens said. “We’ve been successful at leading the charge towards not just looking at patients on an individual basis but also looking at their underlying determinants of health. These approaches will greatly benefit patients’ clinical outcomes and on their quality of life.”