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Monday, March 27, 2023

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New SDSU FUERTE Faculty Address Latinx Health Disparities

New SDSU FUERTE faculty address Latinx health disparities
By Peggy Pico, Sarah White and Kellie Woodhouse

A cluster of Latinx health researchers is joining the San Diego State University faculty this year, adding to a robust and growing nexus of expertise on health disparities. 

Nine faculty have been hired in the College of Sciences, College of Health and Human Services and SDSU Imperial Valley as a part of SDSU FUERTE (Faculty Unified towards Excellence in Research and Transformational Engagement), an National Institutes of Health-funded effort to bolster Latinx health disparities research and provide researchers with thoughtful career development and mentoring. 

The new faculty will look at Latinx health from every angle, including aging, cancer and environmental health.

Aging Minds and Migrant Community Health 

Ariana Stickel researches neuropsychology, specifically Alzheimer’s and dementia, in Latino populations. She identifies risk factors for cognitive aging, considering how  other health conditions like cardiovascular disease and cultural pressures to acculturate might correlate with dementia. Stickel said her Latina grandmother fuels her focus on older adults and informing clinical decisions for the under-studied Latino population.

“It feels like I’m coming home,” Stickel said. “I wouldn’t be where I am without SDSU and the opportunities I had here.”

As a psychology major and first-generation college student, Stickel dipped her toe into research working with bilingual preschoolers and then joined the precursor to the National Institutes of Health-funded Advancing Diversity in Aging Research program led by psychology professor Terry Cronan. Stickel looks forward to mentoring students in the program who, like her, have an interest in using research to improve how clinicians diagnose and treat dementia.

When several Mexican and Central American immigrants arrived to work in carpet mills in her small hometown of Dalton, Georgia, Jessica McCurley observed a stark increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in her community.

This experience, combined with several family members — including a grandmother — with chronic physical and mental health conditions motivated McCurley to become a clinical psychologist who examines the effectiveness of behavioral health interventions for low-income minority and migrant populations with chronic health conditions.



Pictured above from left to right - Front row: Miguel Zavala, Nicolás López-Gálvez, Corinne McDaniels-Davidson, Teresa Monkkonen, Mari Zúñiga (Co-Principal Investigator), Syona Hurst (Program Coordinator). Back row: Benjamín Aceves, Jessica McCurley, Ariana Stickel, Kai-Chung Cheng, Mark Reed (Co-Principal Investigator) 


“There’s nowhere better to do that than somewhere right on the border,” McCurley said. “SDSU is so strong with community health and community-based participatory research, so it was a perfect fit.”

Cancer Disparities

Teresa Monkkonen will join the biology department as an assistant professor specializing in the cell-to-cell communications involved in the most aggressive kinds of breast cancer.

Even though she will not officially start as a faculty member until the spring 2023 semester, Monkkonen has already been involved in several FUERTE activities, such as a grant writing retreat to collaboratively build research projects with the other new faculty. She said this retreat was a good indicator of how supportive and welcoming her fellow San Diego cancer researchers are.

Corinne McDaniels-Davidson is the director of the SDSU Institute for Public Health, associate director of Public Health Practice, and assistant professor of Public Health.  Her recent research focuses on HPV-related cancer health disparities. This ranges from identifying disparities in both outcomes and upstream causes of cancer disparities to designing interventions to reduce them.

“I'm a first-generation college student from a place where I didn't have a lot of college graduates to look to. That made navigating higher education and the research enterprise difficult. FUERTE provides an infrastructure of support and sponsorship that recognizes the need to fill those gaps.” 

Children and Community Influence

Benjamin Aceves is an assistant professor in the Division of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Public Health. His FUERTE research focuses on addressing social factors influencing access to care among Latinx populations, specifically those living with chronic diseases.  


Nicolas Lopez-Galvez is an assistant professor of environmental health at the School of Public Health. He credits his experience as a first-generation Latino immigrant in the U.S. as influencing his commitment to addressing environmental justice issues and health disparities in minority populations.

His study examines the health impact of carcinogen exposure  to children living near the U.S.-Mexico border in Imperial County. Children in Imperial County are seen in the emergency room for asthma-related conditions at a rate three times higher than the average rate for other children in California. His pilot project aims to determine the levels of pesticide exposure children living in the border region experience and investigate any potential neurodevelopmental issues associated with exposure. 

Environmental Health in Imperial Valley

Three SDSU FUERTE researchers affiliated with the School of Public Health are joining the faculty at SDSU Imperial Valley. The group is focused on addressing environmental health in underserved communities, including communities along the border region.

Environmental health researcher Miguel Zavala joins SDSU IV as an associate professor. He uses tools to track air pollution — including mathematical and computational models and field-based studies that assess the impact of pollution on human health — and studies the association between air pollution and public policy. During COVID-19, Zavala looked at how COVID-19, and subsequent changes in daily human activity, affected air quality. 

“I am inspired by how SDSU FUERTE is strongly committed to research in health disparities and environmental justice in underserved communities. That’s really unique and not something you can find everywhere. We are addressing real problems that matter to people and communities,” said Zavala.

“I want to understand more about how factors like dust in the air, biomass burning, traffic emissions at the border, and insecticides from agriculture impact the local community,” Zavala continued. “How prevalent is exposure, what are the impacts of these pollutants and how can we change policy to improve health?”

Environmental toxicologist Linda Lara-Jacobo joins SDSU IV as an assistant professor. Her research focuses on the surveillance of contaminants in wastewater, including pharmaceuticals, personal care products, nanoparticles, flame retardants and pesticides. Tracking contaminants is a critical first step in understanding how environmental threats impact a population, and mitigating those threats in the future. 

Wastewater surveillance can also help researchers track disease.  

“You can track so many things through water: cancer biomarkers, tuberculosis proteins, or using RNA and DNA to identify viruses like COVID-19, monkeypox and the flu,” said Lara-Jacobo. “That allows you to predict and track outbreaks — because oftentimes you can see problems in the wastewater before the community displays symptoms.”

Environmental health researcher Kai-Chung Cheng will join SDSU IV as an assistant professor in the spring. Chen measures and models indoor air quality, looking at issues like secondhand smoke intrusion and major traffic emissions.

“SDSU FUERTE researchers working at SDSU IV have a concerted focus on improving the health of underserved communities, and how issues of environmental health, inequities and environmental justice have an outsized negative impact on these communities,” said social work and SDSU FUERTE co-leader María Luisa Zúñiga.