Advancing Research on Minority Health Disparities: A Q&A with CEMHD Director Elizabeth Vásquez

Portrait of Elizabeth Vásquez against a gray background. Vásquez is smiling, wearing red rimmed glasses, a shell necklace, red top and red and navy striped blazer.
Associate Professor Elizabeth Vásquez undertakes new role as director of UAlbany's Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities.

By Erin Frick 

ALBANY, N.Y. (Feb. 1, 2024) — University at Albany’s Elizabeth Vásquez, associate professor at the School of Public Health, has been named director of the Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities (CEMHD) — a collaborative effort among UAlbany researchers and community organizations to understand and address health disparities among underserved populations, specifically in the smaller cities and towns of New York.

CEMHD was created in 2005 with support from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Since then, the Center has continued to attract significant research funding, including support from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities S-21 Endowment award. Today, CEMHD is a regional hub for health disparities research, training and community outreach.

Vásquez joined the UAlbany faculty in 2011 and holds dual appointments in the Department of Epidemiology & Biostatistics and the Department of Latin American, Caribbean & U.S. Latino Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also a founding member of UAlbany’s BILPOC Faculty Advancement Initiative.

Vásquez’s research explores physical activity among older adults and the influence of contextual factors and social determinants. In addition to teaching and research, she is also deeply involved in the community, serving as a Spanish-language translator for the free clinic at Albany’s Capital City Rescue mission. She also supports community relations as part of the School of Public Health’s Multi-site PFAS Health Study.

We caught up with Vásquez to learn more about her research in the health disparity space, what drives her to advance this work, CEMHD’s current activities and ways for students and faculty to get involved.

How can we improve public health by studying and addressing health disparities among minority populations?

Understanding how racial and ethnic differences impact health is critical and represents a growing public health imperative. The percentage of the U.S. population that is racially or ethnically diverse is on the rise; projections indicate a radical shift by 2050. Changes in these population demographics are also reflected in the increase of other vulnerable minority groups, including racial and ethnic older adults and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Understanding the nature and the causes of health disparities is a prerequisite to devising effective interventions, in partnership with the affected communities.

Some of the key areas that UAlbany researchers are focusing on now include health disparities related to environmental issues, such as climate change and pollutants, aging in place and maternal and child health disparities. Maternal health disparities will be the focus of this year’s President’s Forum on Health Disparities, to be held on April 12, 2024 (details for the 2024 event are forthcoming).

What are CEMHD’s primary goals? What’s on the horizon for the Center in the coming year?

One of CEMHD’s primary goals is to increase the number and diversity of researchers in the field of health disparities and equity. A key way that CEMHD does this is through the Presidential Health Disparities Doctoral Fellowship Program, which supports doctoral education for students from underrepresented groups whose research interests focus on health disparities. In keeping with the Center’s view of health disparities as a complex phenomenon with multiple causes, students in the program are earning their degrees in disciplines across the campus, including social sciences, public health, social welfare and biological sciences.

In addition, CEMHD fosters research in health disparities by hosting events that expose participants to the latest developments in the field and bring people together to share ideas and gain expertise and support. These include the annual President’s Forum on Health Disparities; last year’s keynote speaker was Dr. Eliseo Perez-Stable, the Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. CEMHD also sponsors an ongoing speaker series, periodic workshops and the annual SPRINTER meeting in collaboration with SUNY Downstate.

CEMHD fosters academic-community collaborations around health disparities issued through its community task forces and other community outreach and partnership-building activities. CEMHD staff continue to engage in research that reflects this line of work. For example, CEMHD’s Mia Gallo has submitted two grant proposals in collaboration with the Akwesasne Mohawk Women. Both projects will examine different aspects of autoimmune responses, including autoimmune disease, in relation to pesticide exposure. These projects are being undertaken with collaborators including UAlbany’s David Carpenter and partners at the NYS Department of Health and Bassett Medical Center.

Former CEMHD director Annis Golden and I co-led the community engagement core of a recent application to the National Institutes of Health to establish a Center for Advancing Health Equity and Policy in a Changing Climate at UAlbany directed by Professors Shao Lin and Christopher Thorncroft.

Health disparities have long been a focal point of your research. What are you working on now?

Currently, my work includes evaluating the potential beneficial effects of physical activity, as well as other types of behavioral factors, on preventing or slowing down age-related decline in cognitive function. This line of research is also directed toward establishing links between cognitive impairment and the ability of older adults to manage various chronic physical and metabolic conditions. 

In my current role as CEMHD director, my focus is to continue the legacy of CEMHD by conducting research that contributes to the health prevention agenda and evaluating the complex relationship between health behavior, special populations, and place. My research agenda and experiences provide me with skills and tools to identify areas of inequities and empower underrepresented community stakeholders interested in health disparities and inequities that will continue to enhance the work of the center.

What motivates your deep engagement with this work, and what are your hopes for the future of CEMHD?

This is a great question, and the answer is rooted at the center of my career trajectory. As a Latina immigrant, I understand the power of the collective as a catalyst for research that contributes to the public health prevention agenda. My network of collaborators has aided me in evaluating the complex relationship between health behavior, special populations, culture and place. Within these research themes, we have explored the role of psychosocial determinants and behavior among racially and ethnically diverse populations, the need for diversity at higher education institutions (Carmen Serrano is the lead partner in this work), and the need for improvement in the equity sphere—exemplified by efforts such as SUNY’s Hispanic Leadership Institute (HLI) training.

As my research has developed, my interests have moved from individual-level indicators to those that consider the role of social context, institution, and place (e.g., neighborhoods, social networks and work interactions) and their contributions to differential health outcomes within racial and ethnic populations (e.g., African Americans and Latinos, including Afro and non-Afro-Latino Americans). Furthering this line of research is part of my vision for CEMHD.

My goal is for CEMHD to continue to provide an inclusive multidisciplinary space where methods and theories are used to examine an array of factors implicated in the development and distribution of health, and the creation of health equity.

How can UAlbany students or faculty members get involved in CEMHD’s work?

We encourage faculty whose research already intersects with minority health disparities to contact the Center and request affiliation. If their research doesn’t currently intersect, but they are interested, they can request to be included on our listserv to ensure that they receive notices about upcoming workshops and speakers, and to receive our quarterly newsletter. We also take on a limited number of student volunteers to assist with social media, information dissemination and other outreach work.

Interested students and faculty members are encouraged to contact Mia Gallo at [email protected] to learn more about ways to engage with CEMHD.

Upcoming networking opportunity:

The Center for the Elimination of Minority Health Disparities is housed within UAlbany’s new Institute for Social and Health Equity (ISHE), which is hosting a public launch event on Feb. 14 at 1 p.m. in the ETEC atrium. The celebration will include lunch, a presentation by featured speaker Adam Gamoran and a catered reception to follow. All are welcome to attend. Details and registration can be found at this link. Contact Debbie Hazapis to learn more.