NIMHD’s Pioneers in Minority Health and Health Disparities Q & A Campaign
NIMHD champions workforce diversity. As we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) heritage month this year, we are recognizing pioneer researchers in fields of minority health and health disparities, whose career trajectories have been shaped by the NIMHD-sponsored Loan Repayment Program (LRP) and subsequent research program grants. Meet Eida Maria Castro, Psy.D., M.S.
Dr. Eida M. Castro
Dr. Castro is a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at Ponce Health Sciences University (PHSU), Puerto Rico. Affiliated jointly with PHSU’s School of Medicine and School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, she provides community service by partnering with local community-based organizations that provide psychosocial care to cancer patients/survivors. She also delivers mental health care to cancer patients, survivors and caregivers. Dr. Castro is a Hispanic/Latina from Puerto Rico.
On her motivation to work on addressing cancer health disparities in underserved populations of Puerto Rico, she said, “as a Hispanic/Latina woman living in Puerto Rico, I have experienced firsthand the socio-economic, political and structural challenges that perpetrate health disparities in the island. These disparities were exacerbated after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico in 2017. The combined upheaval, consisting of a category 5 hurricane, coupled with a fragile health system and very weak socio-economic structure, caused an unprecedented number of deaths and other health problems. Having these first-hand experiences fueled my commitment and passion in pursuing a career in health disparity research.”
Dr. Castro’s research focuses on describing unmet medical and psychological needs over time among cancer patients in Puerto Rico who were affected by Hurricane María; identifying multilevel barriers and facilitators to accessing care; and exploring putative physiological indicators of stress in cancer patients and a matched sample of non-cancer controls, both groups affected by Hurricane María.
Q & A with Dr. Eida M. Castro:
How is your research impacting public health?
My line of research seeks to understand how exposure to social environmental adversity (such as natural disasters, child abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence, crime, etc.) impacts cancer health outcomes of underserved Hispanic patients. Mounting preclinical and clinical evidence suggests that stress-induced effects in the tumor drives its growth and progression in many cancers.1 Therefore, stress might increase the risk of cancer morbidity and mortality. We know that Hispanics are at a greater risk of being exposed to social environmental adversity.2 We also know that exposure to these traumatic events is associated with elevated levels of systemic inflammation.3 Currently, I am leading two NIMHD-funded studies that seek to contribute to this body of evidence. One of the studies aims to describe unmet needs and access to care in cancer patients in Puerto Rico after Hurricane María, along with the impact of extreme Hurricane María-related physical and mental stress that might adversely affect cancer prognosis. The second, a clinical research study, seeks to investigate if Puerto Rican women diagnosed with breast cancer and exposed to lifetime social environmental adversity are a greater risk of activation of breast tumor-associated inflammatory process.
How has the Loan Repayment Program (LRP) impacted your career?
In simple words, the LRP facilitated the development of infrastructure to frame and focus my line of research. When I prepared to apply for the LRP grant, I put in a lot of effort and thought about how I envisioned myself contributing to the efforts of eliminating health disparities, and about the resources that I needed to succeed. The LRP helped me focus and envision my immediate and long-term career development plan.
What was your motivation in becoming an independent research investigator?
There are two main drivers that motivated me to embark on the journey to becoming an independent investigator. The first is that science, put at the service of underserved populations, provides me with a sense of meaning in my career and in my life. The second is that I enjoy passing on this knowledge to the next generation of researchers. My mission is to imprint my commitment, passion and sense of meaning for health disparity research to my mentees.
Is there a particular challenge you had to overcome in your career, and what advice would you give to the next generation?
One of the challenges of conducting research in a territory outside of the United States is that, for a strange reason, it is harder to demonstrate the relevance of our experience on the island to other groups on the mainland United States. This challenge has often appeared when submitting grants for funding research. Let’s face it, even though we are American citizens, and Puerto Rico is part of the United States, we have our own culture and language. Our socio-political status and economic crisis put us in a unique disadvantage that perpetuated health disparities further than we already had. Sometimes it is challenging to relate this to other groups of Hispanics, even Puerto Ricans, in the United States. As a matter of fact, I strongly believe that Puerto Rico should be studied as a “case study” for systemic health inequities. Meanwhile, I worked around the aforementioned challenges by identifying common health disparity themes experienced by underserved Hispanic populations in the United States, and likewise, I focused on the unique experiences faced by Puerto Ricans on the island that deepen their health disparities. Reflecting on all these challenges, my advice to the next generation would be to value health as a very delicate resource and to treasure health equity as a very personal and sacred right. My advice to the next generation of health disparities researchers would be to become aware of the great responsibility we carry on our shoulders, which is to utilize science as a means to protect and preserve health equity as a human right.
What is your vision for health equity in this new decade?
This is a great question! I think that if we want to accelerate health equity, we have to create a movement in which the scientific, clinical, community, private, and political sectors come together to produce meaningful socio-political and socio-economic changes. With the alignment of these sectors we will be able the achieve health equity sooner.
- Lutgendorf, S.K., & Andersen, B.L. (2015). Biobehavioral approaches to cancer progression and survival: Mechanisms and interventions. The American Psychologist, 70(2):186-197. doi:10.1037/a0035730
- Roberts, A.L., Gilman, S.E., Breslau, J., Breslau, N., & Koenen, K.C. (2011). Race/ethnic differences in exposure to traumatic events, development of post-traumatic stress disorder, and treatment-seeking for post-traumatic stress disorder in the United States. Psychological Medicine, 41(1):71-83. doi:10.1017/S0033291710000401
- Slavich, G.M., & Irwin, M.R. (2014). From stress to inflammation and major depressive disorder: a social signal transduction theory of depression. Psychological Bulletin, 140(3):774-815. doi:10.1037/a0035302
Posted September 17, 2020