Dr. Ana Abraido-Lanza

Recently, Mailman’s grant funding for the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD), which aims to increase the number of doctoral students from underrepresented groups in the biomedical and behavioral sciences, was renewed. ODCI sat down with Professor Ana Abraido-Lanza, who directs the program along with Professor DuBois Bowman, to learn more about how IMSD supports a diverse public health workforce. 

Before we dive into the IMSD program, could you tell us about your research?

My research is on Latino populations in the United States. More specifically, I am very interested in the concept of acculturation – which is defined very broadly as the process by which groups adopt the attitudes, norms, and behaviors of a host population. I’m interested in the influence or effect of acculturation on a variety of different health outcomes.  My work over the past few years has focused mostly on breast cancer screening, but that’s expanding.

I’m also very interested in the Latino mortality paradox: the observation that despite worse socioeconomic status (SES) relative to non-Latino whites, Latinos have lower mortality. This goes against a relatively robust finding that SES predicts worse health – so why would Latinos have lower mortality than non-Latino whites?

Many frameworks in public health and psychology, which I’m trained in, tend to take a “risk factor” approach. They focus on the deficits of communities, rather than strengths and resilience factors. I’ve always been very interested in that other side of the coin – the resilience factors and the positive aspects of culture. If you trace my work over the course of my career, I always had that perspective. That’s the thread that ties my work together.

What experiences in your life have led you to this work?

Professor Abraido-Lanza: Being an immigrant myself! I am interested in how immigrants and Latinos are able to manage and maneuver through a variety of different barriers to well-being, health, and higher education.  When I was working on a post-doctoral fellowship, I stumbled upon the findings concerning the Latino mortality paradox. That’s what sent me down the research path of trying to understand the factors that help to explain the paradox. 

Can you give us a quick overview of what the IMSD grant is, and its history at Mailman?

The IMSD grant supports nine PhD and DrPH students per year. Four departments participate – Biostatistics, Epidemiology, Environmental Health Sciences, and Sociomedical Sciences. I direct the program with a leadership team of wonderful colleagues representing each department: Drs. DuBois Bowman (who directs the program with me), Silvia Martins, and Ana Navas-Acien.

The program has been in existence here since 2002. When it started it was a program for master’s students.  At the time there was very little funding available to support diversity in the master’s pipeline. When NIH changed the guidelines to stipulate that IMSD programs may support only doctoral or undergraduate students, we switched gears.  Our IMSD has been a doctoral program since 2008.

The program provides mentoring, tuition support, a seminar course, and travel funds to attend scientific conferences. Participants work with a mentor for the time they are in the IMSD program and receive a graduate research assistant salary. They also take a course called Seminar in Research and Professional Development, which covers a variety of topics including survival skills in graduate school and how to write an NIH grant. We also plan and implement a school-wide, annual Student Research Diversity Day, in collaboration with other offices.

It sounds like the IMSD program offers many benefits to its student participants, where are graduates ending up after IMSD? And what are benefits you think Mailman gets from it, too?

Our graduates have gone on to obtain outstanding post-doctoral and faculty positions. We have had graduates going to post-doc positions at Brown University, Harvard, the University of California San Francisco, and the University of Michigan, among other institutions. We had graduates take on faculty positions at top schools, including Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Emory.  Another who recently completed his post-doc fellowship is about to start a faculty position at Yale School of Public Health. Those are just a few outstanding examples. 

The IMSD program is also a major advantage to Mailman because it helps to diversify the student body, and in doing so, the scientific workforce. It is so important to ensure that the scientific workforce represents the population of the United States. That’s a great challenge because there are many barriers to higher education for certain groups, for a variety of reasons. Of peer schools of public health, we have the highest proportion of diverse students in the doctoral student body due in large part to IMSD.

What has your involvement with the IMSD program meant to you personally?

I always say that it takes a village to raise an IMSD. It’s just been so gratifying for me to see how well the students have done and that the school has supported the program the way it has. That it’s not just one or two departments, but a schoolwide program -- including support from the Office of the Dean – is extremely gratifying. The idea that an IMSD program exists at a school speaks volumes about the commitment of that school to diversity. And I revel in the accomplishments of our students. It’s just wonderful to see them grow and succeed. “The village” also includes many colleagues who serve as IMSD mentors, dedicating their time and energy to make sure that students excel. Without their unwavering commitment to the program, IMSD would not exist.