Mentoring thrives at the South Bay Latino Research Center | message center

SDSU professors Greg Talavera and Linda Gallo co-direct the center, which studies cardiometabolic disease and health disparities in Latinx communities.

As a first generation student Eduardo Hernandez Mozo began working with a psychology professor at San Diego State University Linda Gallohe did not see himself as a researcher.

“There aren’t usually too many minority students of color in research, and having her do so much work in the Latino community and having me be part of her lab has boosted my confidence,” he said.

Under Gallo’s mentorship, Hernandez Mozo became a research associate at the South Bay Latino Research Center (SBLRC) in Chula Vista, studying ways to reduce hospitalizations in Latinxs with multiple cardiometabolic diseases. The biology and psychology dual degree is now planning a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

Hernandez Mozo is one of many budding researchers who started at the center, which studies health disparities in the Latinx community and develops culturally appropriate interventions. Preparing the next generation of researchers is central to this mission.

“We’re very committed to mentoring from undergraduate through to career entry,” Gallo said. “We placed a lot of emphasis on working with people who are themselves Latino or have otherwise underrepresented backgrounds. It’s another way we’re trying to address health inequalities: through workforce building.”

Understanding Latinx Health

Gallo and Associate Professor of Psychology dr Greg Talavera Co-Director of SBLRC, which has raised more than $73 million in grants since 2006. The focus is on the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL), funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

HCHS/SOL tracks the cardiometabolic health of more than 16,000 Latinx individuals at SBLRC and three other research centers across the country. Participants between the ages of 18 and 74 provided baseline cardiometabolic data and returned every six years so researchers can monitor the development and progression of chronic diseases.

“Determining the number of new cases over time is one of the most important things we can do that previous research hasn’t really been able to do,” Talavera said.

For example, the study found a high prevalence of undiagnosed diabetes in the Latinx community. It also shows that the likelihood of developing high blood pressure over a six-year period is about 20% in Latinxs, but is significantly higher in people of Caribbean background than those of Mexican background.

“We’re really fortunate to have such great and comprehensive data from the Hispanic Health Study,” said Kim Savin, one of Gallo’s graduate students. In a complementary study, Savin analyzed the participants’ neighborhood environments along with measures of physical activity and cardiovascular health and found that six years later, socioeconomic disadvantage, crime rates, and liquor store density were associated with an increased risk of hypertension.

“As we’ve found, people’s neighborhoods affect their health,” Savin said.

One possible explanation is that people may experience higher levels of stress when their neighborhoods feel less safe, which in turn is linked to elevated blood pressure, but the hypothesis needs further testing.

Culturally informed interventions

In addition to the landmark HCHS/SOL study, SBLRC is also conducting intervention research in collaboration with the University of California San Diego and local state-qualified community health centers. A long-time partner is San Ysidro Health, a network of health centers and clinics serving communities with historical barriers to healthcare.

“I’ve been running randomized trials recruiting from their clinical population since about 2003,” Talavera said. “Most of our research with them has direct benefits for the patients and the organization – and sometimes for the community at large.”

The partnership provides numerous opportunities for student interns and research assistants to explore culturally appropriate interventions and best practices in a real-world setting.

Paulina Mendoza is the project manager for joint studies between the SBLRC and San Ysidro Health. But when she came to SDSU as a student, she wanted to study business and open a salon. However, over time she turned to community health and began working with Talavera in 2004. First, she helped develop a research ethics curriculum for community health workers.

According to Mendoza, Talavera was always available and encouraged her to pursue a Masters of Public Health (MPH) at SDSU. Now she is supervising interns and research associates herself.

“I really enjoy working with the next generation of students, seeing their potential and motivation and being able to serve as a role model and to say that I was also a research associate,” said Mendoza.

She was instrumental in coordinating SBLRC’s LUNA-D study at San Ysidro Health, which compared a psychosocial well-being-focused diabetes intervention delivered by an integrated bilingual care team to standard health center diabetes care. The culture-informed intervention showed greater improvement in diabetes markers over six months in participants with multiple cardiometabolic risk factors.

Now Mendoza is leading the next-generation LUNA-E study, which also uses a similar approach and combines behavioral health with medical care to improve diabetes self-management.

“This time we are focusing on an integrated approach with telemedicine and health education made available through online video,” she said.

Tanya Valdez, a graduate student intern at SBLRC, tailors these health education materials to the local patient population. Originally from Calexico, she is currently completing an MPH at SDSU.

“The hands-on research experience I gained and the guidance that Dr. Gallo and Dr. Talavera during my time at SBLRC gave me the confidence I needed to be successful in the MPH program,” she said. “Being a first-generation college student, I still struggle to see myself as a scientist, but through their mentorship and guidance, they paved a path for students like me.”

Valdez plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and hopes to use this expertise to give back to her hometown in the future.

“My lived experiences as someone from the Latino community exposed me to the type of barriers my community faces when trying to navigate or access health care. These lived experiences and my need to understand why these health disparities exist in the Latino community are the main reasons I eventually pursued a career in research.”

Raised in Chula Vista, dr Dorathy Tamayo Murillo also witnessed the tolls that could have health differences. Her family lacked the means to afford health insurance.

“People in the community don’t seek help until it’s really too late,” she said. “It’s not fair that there is such an inequality based solely on income – your zip code determines your future health. That was the driving force to study medicine because I want to bring quality care to communities that are being overlooked.”

Talavera was similarly inspired to study medicine after learning of the health hazards faced by migrant workers.

As a student at UCSD, Tamayo-Murillo volunteered at San Ysidro Health. She then became a research associate under Talavera’s mentorship, accompanying a doctor at the clinic. The paid job gave her enough time to study for her MCAT. She came to Harvard Medical School and is now an assistant professor of radiology at UCSD.

But she hasn’t forgotten the South Bay. She recently co-authored a paper examining the impact of structural racism and COVID-19 in underrepresented communities and is collaborating with Talavera to study health disparities with the SBLRC and San Ysidro Health.

view in the future

With more than a dozen active scholarships, SBLRC continues to serve the Latinx community. The HCHS/SOL study is now collecting data from participants for the third study visit, allowing researchers to gain a long-term perspective on their cardiometabolic health. An offshoot of the study, the Hispanic Community Children’s Health Study/Study of Latino Youth, looks at cardiometabolic risk factors in children of original HCHS/SOL participants, and another follows babies born between their parents’ first and second visits.

“We had all of this data before they got sick,” Talavera said. “One of the key questions we could answer is: What is the impact of a long COVID?”

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