A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program
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New Connections is a depot of mentorship and expertise that you can access and reach out to. It has made such a positive impact on my academic trajectory.

Growing up in a blue-collar suburban Los Angeles community, as the daughter of Mexican American immigrants with less than a high school education, Bertha Hidalgo often had difficulty finding academic mentors among her family and friends. “This was such a foreign world for my parents and anyone I knew in my social circle,” she recalls. But despite these challenges, Bertha was a top student, and spent her high school years at the prestigious California Academy of Mathematics and Science, a four-year magnet school. She then applied to Stanford, where she was accepted, and completed a BA in Human Biology.

As she moved through the tiers of academia, Bertha identified mentors who could guide her research interests and shape her professional growth. For instance, during a post-baccalaureate program sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, Bertha worked with Anthony Fauci, a father of HIV research. “I have been fortunate to have met those people along the way,” she reflects.

Defining a Research Agenda

In order to pursue her passion for working with Latino populations, Bertha returned to California, and completed a MPH program in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Southern California. She then applied to a PhD program in epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Her doctoral research focused on comparing pre-cervical cancer among Latina immigrants to the U.S., U.S.-born Latinas, and other racial groups. Upon graduation, Bertha transitioned to a post-doctoral fellowship in statistical genetics. Her work led to an article published in the Journal of Diabetes. “The unique thing about my research is that many people are not combining health disparities and genetics together,” Bertha says. “My hypothesis is that some of the studies published to date might be confounded by the fact that we don’t understand the nuances between these groups.”

This hypothesis informed the focus of Bertha’s New Connections grant, which she received in 2014. Rising through academia, Bertha noticed that many publications addressing childhood obesity claimed that Hispanic/Latinos were more prone to obesity. “But I always wondered: Who were these Hispanics?  Were they Mexicans, or perhaps a combination of Hispanic/Latino background groups?,” Bertha postulated. In her grant, Bertha conducted a literature review to determine the accuracy of researchers’ representations of Hispanic/Latino subgroups.

Another aim of her grant is to perform a multi-year analysis of obesity rates in a population of Latino children – and to examine those subgroups to identify any differences in obesity rates over time. This analysis, along with research from the first aim of her RWJF grant, will help Bertha to better inform her work when combining health disparities and genetics. “One recent finding has fueled Bertha’s research efforts. A gene predisposing Mexicans, rather than other Hispanic/Latino background groups, to Type 2 Diabetes, was identified. This has major implications for future research involving heterogeneous groups like Hispanic/Latinos,” she notes.

The Value of a Network

Even before becoming a New Connections grantee, Bertha met several scholars in related fields of study through her experience at New Connections professional development events. She has collaborated with many of these scholars on publications and presentations. Today, Bertha is an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, associate scientist in the Nutrition Obesity Research Center, associate scientist in the Minority Health Research Center, and scholar of the Center for Community Health at UAB. In addition, she serves as the chair of the Minority Affairs Committee of the American College of Epidemiology. Illustrating that the value of networking extends beyond the published paper, Hidalgo invited fellow New Connections scholars to help lead a workshop on minority affairs at the American College of Epidemiology. “New Connections is a depot of mentorship and expertise that you can access and reach out to,” she says. “It has made such a positive impact on my academic trajectory.”