An Infusion of Diversity for the Next Generation of Health Policy Leaders

    • March 4, 2012

“As our society has become more diverse and inequitable,” says Robert Otto Valdez, PhD, “language and income distribution have taken on increased importance. While scholars from any cultural background or gender background can study a particular problem, scholars who’ve actually lived it bring particular insights to interpretation of research findings, and they can sometimes think and see solutions in a different way. Science is enriched, and our policy options expanded as a result.”

Thus the mission of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico (UNM): increasing the diversity of health policy leaders trained in the social and behavioral sciences. The Center’s primary focus is to increase the number of social and health scientists from Latino, Native American and other racial and ethnic communities underrepresented in these fields. A professor of family and community medicine and economics at the University and a former deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Valdez is the Center’s executive director.

At the heart of the Center’s work is the academic and professional development of its students, doctoral, and post-doctoral fellows on their way to careers in health policy. Center-affiliated faculty actively mentor the fellows, guiding them during their time there. One result of this intensive effort is that the Center’s retention rate for minority doctoral students stands at 80 percent, compared with a national retention rate of 50 percent.

Among other things, the faculty helps prepare young scholars for the academic job market. Valdez explains that the Center helps students with some of the building blocks of an academic career—writing proposals, the research dissemination process, and other research and professional skills he says help give the young scholars a boost when they enter the job market.

But the support goes deeper still. “Even the most prepared graduate students hit bumps in the road,” Valdez explains, “and unless you’re prepared to deal with students on an individual basis, you’re very likely to lose some. In particular, first-generation students often bring a host of family obligations that other students do not. So we provide academic support, and help them develop their writing skills and quantitative analysis, but we also provide professional counseling because, for many of them, it’s a whole new world, trying to figure out how to work their way through the ‘labyrinth’ of academics…. We also try to be attentive to their personal concerns, an effort that’s relatively unique at the graduate level. What we’ve observed is that, as first-generation academics and minority scholars move up the ladder, they find increasingly fewer supports and role models. So we try to provide this kind of guidance as well as access to a network of senior scholars from their community, and to serve as a backstop for them in the event of unforeseen issues.”

Recent Fellows on the Tenure Track

One recent postdoctoral fellow, Valarie Blue Bird Jernigan, DrPH, says she was pregnant when she joined the program, but notes that Valdez tailored her work in her first year so that she found it manageable even with a newborn. “It was a very delicate time, when a lot of new investigators could get off track and move out of academia,” Jernigan says. “I’d been offered several positions, but chose to work with the Center for that year because Dr. Valdez puts great emphasis on developing the whole person. He was willing to be flexible with me, and that's what I needed…. So our career training plan for me focused on writing and getting my publications out. Most other mentors would not have tailored a year so individually as Dr. Valdez did for me.”

Jernigan accepted a tenure-track position at the University of Oklahoma College of Public Health, where she is continuing research she conducted at the Center, focusing on food insecurity issues among Native Americans, including Alaska Natives. She examines the issue through the lens of social justice, exploring its relationship to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, with an eye toward developing ways to work with tribes to create healthy food policies and greater food security.

Jernigan is one of three recent postdoctoral fellows—Native Americans, all—to move on to tenure-track positions.

Vanessa Simonds, ScD, is now an assistant professor at the Iowa College of Public Health. She says her time at the Center “was a great transition period into my current position as faculty. It provided me an opportunity to explore career options, to understand academic careers better, to explore grant-writing and proposal-development, and to benefit from the Center’s many resources, including mentoring and peer support.” Her research interest at the Center and now in Iowa focuses on trust in health care providers among Native American patients.

She says that while at the Center, she “learned more about the keys to being successful in an academic career. Ultimately my experience at UNM helped me to become confident that I understood the demands of a tenure-track position, and that a tenure-track position was an acceptable career choice.”

The third postdoctoral Fellow to land an academic position is Kimberly Huyser, PhD, who was recently named an assistant professor in the University of New Mexico’s Department of Sociology. Her research at the Center focused on the socioeconomic attainment and the mental health of Native Americans. “Through the opportunities offered in the postdoctoral fellowship at the RWJF Center at UNM,” she says, “I’ve been able to further my understanding of health policy and also develop my interests in the relationship between mental health and physical health. I am incredibly thankful to the Center for the postdoc experience. It has been a great way to refine my understanding of health policy and to transition to the tenure-track position.” She says her research focus is expanding with her new role. “It continues to have a social stratification element, and now includes examining diabetes and mental health” among Native Americans.

Huyser begins her new position at UNM this fall. She says “the opportunity to serve a postdoc in the same department where I will start my tenure-track position has been a blessing, in that I am able to learn the culture of the department as well as departmental expectations for good scholarship before my tenure clock officially starts.”

In the meantime, Huyser, Simonds and Jernigan were recently reunited by a program at the University of Colorado, serving as Native Investigators at the University’s Native Elders Research Center. The program is focused on gerontological health issues among Native Americans.

Valdez sees the scholars’ transition to tenure-track positions as an affirmation of the UNM Center’s approach, and notes that the three will also be positioned to serve as role models and mentors for a subsequent generation of scholars from historically underrepresented communities.