Diverse personal and professional experiences led me to a career in public health, medical anthropology, and health equity. My interest in culture and equity was sparked when my family moved from New England to the Navajo Nation in Arizona (1983-1987). There, for the first time, I lived among a minority group and as a minority myself, one of few non-Navajo in the heart of the reservation. I learned about discrimination and diversity, balance and beauty, listening and learning. I gave my valedictory speech in Navajo and left for college to study anthropology and education.
My B.A. in anthropology/social sciences and education from Stanford provided academic depth and the opportunity to live and conduct research in Santiago, Chile (1990) and Chiapas, Mexico (1989-1992) under anthropologist-Latin Americanist George A. Collier.
In my subsequent residence (1994-2003) in Comitán, Chiapas, I dove into social science research at El Centro de Investigaciones en Salud de Comitán (CISC) in Chiapas, Mexico. When I moved to Chiapas, CISC was a nascent medically-oriented research group run by a surgeon to address the dismal health conditions that inspired the concurrent Zapatista uprising. At CISC, I worked with local researchers and providers to address the social determinants of intractable problems including domestic violence, maternal mortality, and elder health and care. My team (1) engaged the community in dialogue on needs and resources, (2) generated options for action via critical assessment, (3) monitored process and outcome, and (4) applied data to create appropriate strategies. My efforts helped to establish CISC as a vibrant, locally-run and internationally-funded health research center. I also became fully bilingual (Spanish/English) and comfortably bicultural, establishing deep family and professional ties.
Years of work on health and culture prompted me, in 2000, to complement my practical experience with focused instruction in medical anthropology, international health, and gender via an M.A. (2003) and Ph.D. (2007) from the University of Arizona, advised by medical anthropologist Mark Nichter. My master’s work centered on pregnancy and childbirth in Tojolabal communities around Comitán. For my Ph.D. dissertation, I returned to Comitán to address the emerging need for elder health research and intervention. The urgency of the topic and my familiarity with the community paved the way for CISC, health care providers, and elders to embrace the work as co-collaborators.
Subsequently, to apply my graduate degree to health in the U.S., I led Health Planning & Evaluation at Boulder County Public Health (BCPH). In 2008, BCPH was a cutting-edge local public health department lacking assessment, planning, and evaluation infrastructure. I set agency strategic direction and policy at BCPH by creating and then managing the Health Planning & Evaluation Program. Reporting to the Board of Health, my program served 180 staff in 24 BCPH programs across 3 campuses, 4 hospitals, 3 FQHCs, 2 school districts, for- and non-profit partners for a population of 350,000. By 2017, I had successfully led teams to:
- Co-create and evaluate evidence-based operational plans for pioneering public health programs.
- Co-coordinate the first county-wide public health improvement process, and launch BCPH health equity efforts.
- Liaise with local/state partners to collect data, including implementing the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
- Leverage the Incident Command System to respond to a 1000-year flood, wildfires, and disease outbreaks.
- Engage in syndromic surveillance to use real-time emergency department data for planning and evaluation.
- Develop reports about local health and wellbeing, such as the Status of Children in Boulder County.
- Develop an online health data dashboard, and use electronic health records data to monitor population health.
In 2012, I received an Associate Professor Adjunct faculty appointment at the Department of Anthropology, University of Colorado in Boulder. This allowed me to facilitate exchange of insight between Boulder County Public Health and the University of Colorado, as well as between the fields of public health and applied anthropology.
Since 2017, as Associate Director, Mil Familias Programs, at Sansum Diabetes Research Institute (SDRI), I have managed research-education-care initiatives to prevent and address diabetes, cardio-metabolic conditions, and now COVID-19 in disproportionately impacted populations (predominantly Hispanic/Latino). I supervise a 9-person team to run a diverse portfolio of programs including Mil Familias, Farming for Life, and Latino Diabetes. I secure funding ($2M current annual budget), then develop and achieve objectives within budget. To do so, I coordinate collaboration with health, academic, industry, research, policy, and community allies. Responsibility for quality and integrity rests on my shoulders. I must constantly innovate and improvise to solve problems, and jump into the trenches alone or with help to assess, plan, act, and assure. My role requires strong interpersonal skills and bilingual Spanish-English communication, as evident in my frequent presentations and numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals, including Lancet, Health Equity, Nutrition & Health, and Social Science & Medicine.
In sum, my commitment to health and equity emerged while living in the Navajo Nation and Mexico, and grew with a PhD in medical anthropology. I now have three decades of experience in leading collaborative efforts to disrupt illness and inequity. I am excited to apply my insight to these wicked problems in this unprecedented era of risk and opportunity.