In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) is featuring a NIFA Hispanic Serving Institute (HSI) grant recipient, Melawhy Garcia, MPH, Ph.D.
Dr. Garcia serves as the assistant professor of health science and the director of Center for Latino Community Health, Evaluation, and Leadership Training at California State University - Long Beach (CSULB).
Tell us a little about your path into your current field. Who and/or what inspired you to pursue public health or science more generally?
I was introduced to public health and health disparities research as a psychology undergraduate student. I was lucky to take a course with my mentor Dr. Rios-Ellis, founding Director of the Center for Latino Health. Through her course on Latino health status in the U.S. I learned about the many Latino health disparities and opportunities to engage in community-based research in Long Beach. Instead of going into a psychology program, I decided to apply for the MPH program at CSULB.
You are a 2021 recipient of an HSI collaboration award, what is the goal of your HSI project and what impact do you hope it has on your institution and trainees?
The Leveraging Interdisciplinary Nutritional Knowledge (LINK) Program is a comprehensive collaboration between six Hispanic-serving Institutions (HSI) in Southern California: two 4-year universities— CSULB and CSU Fullerton; and four 2-year community colleges (CC) which are Cerritos, Fullerton, Long Beach City, and Santa Ana Colleges.
LINK Program goals are to: 1) increase the number of underrepresented undergraduate and graduate students graduating in nutrition and nutrition-focused majors of health science/public health and kinesiology through active recruitment and engagement at CCs, CSUF, and CSULB; 2) increase knowledge to prepare LINK Scholar graduates for the workforce or graduate school through interdisciplinary learning communities, faculty-mentored research, and externship at a partnering organization; 3) increase awareness of nutrition-focused majors among at least 80 prospective transfer students; 4) align HSI efforts to support transfer student academic development and success through peer and faculty mentorship, advisement, and tailored workshops; 5) increase the capacity of LINK Scholars to apply knowledge in scientific and professional settings through research internships and externships; and 6) develop LINK Scholars’ leadership abilities through a Leadership Academy. LINK Program goals 1-4 align with HSI Education Grants Program’s Educational Need Areas focused on student recruitment and retention; goals 5-6 align with student experiential learning.
HSIs are very diverse environments, not only for Hispanic students, but also for other groups underrepresented in science. Your training (undergraduate and graduate) has been at HSIs. What impact do you think these environments have had on your training, and what are some of the benefits you experienced being at an HSI as student?
My enrollment at an HSI afforded me the opportunity to engage in Latino health research and motivated me to pursue graduate studies. As a first-generation transfer student, I didn’t plan on completing a master’s degree. Having the opportunity to work on Latino-focused research and having a mentor who saw the importance of providing first-generation students with opportunities to work with their own community gave me a sense of belonging and purpose. The welcoming environment in the MPH program at CSULB and the Center for Latino Health propelled me continue to gain experience in this area.
I have been involved with USDA NIFA funded programs since 2009. From 2009-2013, I served as a program manager on three multi-year programs focused on maternal and child health, infant feeding practices, and childhood obesity prevention. My involvement with the programs provided first-hand experience with community-based research, curriculum development, and the importance training students as the future workforce. I was able to apply what I was learning in my MPH course work (2009-2011) through my involvement with the programs. This opportunity enhanced my learning and understanding of program planning and implementation. I was also able to see first-hand how involving first-generation undergraduate/graduate students was instrumental in increasing the awareness, confidence, and skills of students and motivated them to apply for graduate programs. Some like me had never considered a graduate degree, and after participating in training, mentorship, and research they were ready and encouraged to apply.
How has the NIFA HSI Education Grants program shaped your professional development as a scientist (either from your time as a program manager or currently as a professor)?
Funding from NIFA has provided me with numerous opportunities to design, implement and evaluate research that has led to funding from other government agencies (OMH) as well as internal funding to submit and NIH grant proposal soon. I will use findings from Sanos y Fuertes: Health Strong, a non-experimental study to prevent childhood obesity in family-based setting, as pilot data to prepare a proposal to NIH for R34 funding.
As a program manager, and PI on numerous USDA projects, I have also submitted and presented research at various national conferences as well as prepared co-author peer-reviewed publications. Further, data collected from our programs has been used by student trainees to also prepare and submit abstracts and present research in collaboration with their mentors.
My involvement on the numerous projects has given me a wealth of experience that I also incorporate to my courses as a professor in the Health Science Department at CSULB. Through one USDA grant, we developed a Latino Nutrition Certificate for the MPH program here at CSULB. I am the lead instruction for the Latino Nutrition and Chronic Disease Prevention Course. I also teach Program Planning and Implementation. I regularly use grant and project materials to teach students about community-based research project development and implementation.
Of note, I was accepted to my Ph.D. program and selected as a graduate assistant by John Elder, a nationally recognized researcher at San Diego State University, due to my experience with obesity prevention research. Based on my experience, I was hired to work an NIH R01 study focused on Latino childhood obesity in San Diego.
What advice to you have for current HSI students who may be interested in pursuing a similar career path?
Get involved outside the classroom setting to gain experience in the field as well as with research to identify what you are most passionate about.
The theme for this year’s Hispanic Heritage month is “Esperanza: A Celebration of Hispanic Heritage and Hope.” What hopes do you have for 1) your field of science and its impacts and 2) for your students?
1) I hope that more public health researchers will recognize the resilience of the Latino community and learn about Latino cultural values to prepare culturally congruent programs that effectively meet their needs.
2) I hope that Latino students will recognize and be valued for their cultural assets that can contribute to the public health field to improve the health and wellness of the Latino community.
This article is part of a series celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month 2021. Read all the articles in this series: