Research coordinator earns Diana Award for University Blood Initiative

Headshot of Aviva Klein

Aviva Klein

University of Chicago Medicine clinical research coordinator Aviva Klein, 25, was named to the prestigious 2021 Diana Award Roll of Honour for her work creating the University Blood Initiative (UBI).

The international award was established in memory of Princess Diana of Wales and is supported by her sons, Prince William and Prince Harry. It recognizes exceptional young people who inspire and mobilize their generation to serve their communities and create long-lasting change on a global scale.

Klein — one of approximately 300 people worldwide to receive the award — was recognized for launching UBI, a grassroots organization that works to ensure a stable and equitable blood supply for people from all ethnicities and walks of life. At colleges across the U.S., UBI partners with independent community blood centers to recruit, train and educate college students about blood donation. Together, they set up blood drives and other activities.

“Even though the award’s in my name, I genuinely think this is UBI’s award,” Klein said, sharing credit with her nonprofit’s volunteer staff of more than 30 people, many affiliated with UChicago. “It validates that our message does carry. And we're penetrating that wall of non-awareness with young people."

Since its launch in 2019 at UChicago Medicine, UBI has amassed 24 chapters in 11 states and more than 600 members. A global expansion is expected in the next two years, and the group will start seeking funding from foundations and individuals.

The idea for UBI came from Klein’s experience volunteering at UChicago Medicine’s Blood Donation Center while a student at the University of Chicago. Even though she’d never given blood before, she became interested in the donation process while talking with the doctors she worked with and learning how few donors were young people and people of color. The average donor is a middle-aged white male.

During one volunteer shift, Klein witnessed a media interview at the blood center. She still tears up thinking about it: A UChicago Medicine patient was describing to the reporter how she nearly died from sickle cell anemia, but blood donations to the center saved her life.

“That interview was a turning point for me,” Klein said. “People deserve to feel safe and have what they need to live a fulfilling life. It’s not right to let people suffer for no reason when it’s preventable.”

Klein knew she wanted to enlist more young and ethnically diverse blood donors, but was intimidated to start an organization because she had no business background and was still new to the field. However, Klein said everyone at UChicago encouraged her to do it and offered their support as she learned everything she could about blood donation.

She eventually posted something on Facebook, inviting people to join the cause, and UBI was born.

“There wasn’t really a group dedicated to just promoting blood donation for college students, so inspiring a group of passionate and dedicated college students about the importance of blood donations was a wonderful idea,” said Chancey Christenson, MD, MPH, associate director of the UChicago Medicine Blood Center.

College-based blood donations now account for more than 25% of all blood donations annually, Christenson added. Most students become repeat donors if they start donating during their college years, thereby helping several hundred people over their lifetime.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Christenson said UBI became “our lifeline” to get blood donations at the UChicago Medicine Blood Donation Center. UBI even organized a mask drive.

Part of UBI’s success is the way it targets its message to young people, utilizing social media and framing blood donation as a social justice cause, while also sharing stories about how donations can save lives.

“People don’t understand how important blood is. A lot of what we do is say, ‘This is how bad it is. We need your help.’ But we put it in the language of our peers. When you hear it from people who look like you, and talk like you, and use the same social media platforms as you, it makes the big difference. When you get that message out there, it’s a big response,” Klein said.

The education process includes teaching young people that donating blood can help save lives of people from their own culture. It’s also about building trust, Klein said, since some ethnicities are wary about donating blood because of a long history of racism in medicine.

“We treat blood donation like a social justice issue, because it really is,” she said.

Blood shortages, which happen often, hit low-income areas and communities of color the hardest, Klein said, making it harder for them to access specific blood types needed for blood transfusions or cancer treatments. For example, Black patients are more likely to have O-negative blood, and that blood type can help people with sickle cell anemia, a disease more prevalent among the Black population.

As the daughter of a Cuban immigrant and the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Klein is sensitive to the issues in marginalized and immigrant communities. That’s why UBI focuses its attention on reaching out to these groups.

“Our model is so strong, and the students are still able to do so much, even during COVID,” said Klein, who graduated in 2019 and now helps UChicago Medicine academic hospitalist Vineet Arora, MD with research projects. “I’d love to be the revolution for young people all over the world to push forward. I personally believe it is my responsibility to move the country forward to a more equitable place.”

Blood Donation Is the Gift of Life

A constant supply of blood is necessary for the life-saving treatments needed by many UChicago Medicine patients. Our on-site Blood Donation Center features comfortable reclining chairs, personal televisions and free snacks and drinks for donors. Call 773-702-6247 to schedule a donation appointment.