Robert Straka

Robert StrakaA Longstanding Commitment to Public Engagement

Professor Robert Straka works to advance precision medicine with the goal of improving clinical outcomes, particularly for Minnesota’s Hmong communities. 

“I am grateful for the privilege of working on community-engaged research as part of my scholarship and teaching,” said Straka. “My goal is to leverage the University and community’s efforts to improve society for all, including members of the Hmong community. I am very proud and privileged to have worked with all of our partners in the Hmong community for more than 20 years.”

As part of his work supported by a University of Minnesota Grand Challenges Exploratory Research Grant, Straka partners with members of the Hmong community to increase inclusion and understanding about variations of genes that influence medication effectiveness.

“One size doesn’t fit all,” said Straka. “In order to get the right dose to the right patient at the right strength at the right time, we need to be sensitive to the notion that drugs behave differently in each individual.” 

One area in which Straka and his community collaborators identified early on in their two-decades-long partnership was the prevalence of gout, which is three- to five times higher among Hmong people than in non-Hmong individuals. 

Results from Straka’s early studies seem to imply that there is, in fact, a genetic component that predisposes Hmong to the accumulation of uric acid, which is a precursor to forming gout.

“We think that not only is there a higher risk of gout in the Hmong community on the basis of genes, there’s also probably an interaction between that genetic makeup and how they respond to what we classically use to treat gout in terms of medicines,” he said.

Straka’s community-engaged research has led to the creation of Hmong Genomic and Community Advisory Boards, which enable members of the Hmong community to shape University research questions.

“Our advisory boards are very helpful to keep us researchers centered around what is important to the community overall,” said Straka. “They help inform our best practices of approaching the research question from a culturally and linguistically sensitive manner.” 

Straka and his colleagues have made numerous presentations on precision medicine research at universities, community colleges, and local Hmong community events, creating authentic, collaborative research partnerships with Hmong professionals and community leaders. He also mentors undergraduate, graduate, professional, and post-doctoral students in research experiences with local Hmong communities.