Name: Natasha Ludwig-Barron, PhD(c), MPH
HSHPS Program: HIV/AIDS and Associated Co-Morbidities Training Program Along the US-Mexico Border
Program Year: 2011
Other HSHPS Programs: Conference Travel Award (2011), Mentor for Student Mentorship Program for Hispanic Health Research (2015)
How did you become interested in health and, in particular, Hispanic health issues?
I am a Chicana and first-generation college student from Los Angeles, CA, that witnessed the struggles of single mother, who worked two to three jobs to support us. I was shy, but observant, and saw many family members postpone medical appointments and preventative care services because of the financial burdens associated with medical care. I also realized at a young age that certain medical issues were not accepted and stigmatized in Latinx families. For instance, mental health issues like depression, bipolar spectrum disorder, and substance use were considered a lapse in judgement or morality, and were not welcomed topics, particularly among Latino men. As I grew older, I saw the negative effects of unaffordable healthcare, inaccessible bilingual/bicultural healthcare services and the lack of mental health resources. I wanted to be part of the health equity solution, but did not know where to begin or how to inquire.
From a very young age, my mother emphasized the importance of an education and groomed me to believe that I was college-bound. I did not have a college fund, so I tested into the Air Force with the ambitions of becoming a medic. When my mother picked me up from the Air Force testing center, she was in tears and begged me not to enlist. Three-months after my high school graduation, the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred and, needless to say, I might have had a much different future. I have been called a “non-traditional student,” in that I took a convoluted career pathway and did not transition from my Bachelor’s to Master’s to a Doctorate degree. I took several breaks in my academic trajectory, which provided me with invaluable experiences and exposed me to new career paths. I was fortunate to learn about HSHPS during my Master’s program, which ultimately opened the doors and provided a foundation to my career in academic research, where I study the social implications and co-morbidities surrounding mental health issues, specifically substance use, in communities of color.
What HSHPS program did you participate in and what made you decide to apply?
I was part of the 2011 HSHPS Fellowship Cohort and participated in the HIV/AIDS and Associated Co-Morbidities Training Program, where I worked with global health researchers at UC San Diego along the US-Mexico Border. I applied in the last year of my Master’s program at Emory University, with my early career and thesis centered around cancer prevention and coalition-building in predominately Latinx communities. My post-graduation goals included relocating back to California to work within Latinx communities, perhaps working in government or returning to non-profit organizations, but I never considered a position in academic research. I told myself, “Tan loca, you’re not smart enough for academia.” After reading the HSHPS fellowship description and biographies of my potential mentors, I was amazed by their work addressing complex mental health and substance use issues. I took a chance and applied, but never thought I would be selected. In fact, when I received my acceptance letter I did not tell anyone for a week because I thought HSHPS made a mistake and may rescind the offer.
How did the program benefit you personally and professionally?
Two-weeks after I graduated with my MPH in Behavioral Science/Health Education from Emory University, I moved back West and started my 6-month HSHPS Fellowship. I participated in two research studies during my fellowship, the first highlighted the health-related effects of a drug reform policy in Baja California, and the second study, targeted HIV prevention efforts among women with the co-occurring risks of substance use and intimate partner violence. Within that time, I presented my first abstract at the 2011 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, GA, which was also supported by HSHPS, and I published my first manuscript in 2012. The HSHPS Fellowship provided me with invaluable training, mentorship and career opportunities, and personally, it boosted my confidence as an academic researcher. Fast-forward to 9 years after completing my HSHPS fellowship, I am in the final year of my PhD program in Epidemiology at the University of Washington.
How did the program help you move forward in your career?
The HSPHS Fellowship exposed me to a career path that I did not think was possible. My fellowship turned into a full-time research position at UC San Diego, where I continued to work on several research projects over a 4-year span. I gained skills in grant writing, developing survey instruments, recruiting participants, hiring study staff, conducting mixed methods analyses, presenting findings at international conferences and publishing in scientific journals. After working for UC San Diego, I transitioned into an Epidemiologist/Project Director position at Los Angeles County Department of Public Health for two-years, where I managed and evaluated several county-wide HIV programs. I decided that in order to continue advancing, both personally and professionally, I needed to enhance my skills as an Epidemiologist and earn my doctorate degree. In addition, I had my own research questions and project ideas that I wanted to implement. For me, earning my PhD meant that I would gain autonomy in applying for research funding, setting research agendas and addressing the needs of my community. In many ways, the HSHPS Fellowship exposed me to my academic career path and provided me with opportunities to build a strong foundation in research methods.
What research/projects are you currently working on?
As a doctoral student, I have had the opportunity to work on several different research projects, all of which are centered around Latinx health or focused on health issues within communities of color. In the first year of my doctorate program, I started working with the University of Washington Latino Center for Health, whose mission supports community-engaged research in order to improve the health and well-being of Latinx communities in Washington State. Most recently, I have contributed on their Latino Physician Study, which evaluates the number of practicing bilingual, bicultural Latinx physicians within predominately Latinx communities in order to create policy recommendations to help improve areas experiencing physician shortages. I conducted a geo-spatial analysis for their policy report that showcases specific counties, census tracts and legislative districts within Washington that are experiencing medical service deprivation. Working with a dedicated team of Latinx researchers has inspired met to conduct community-engaged, translational research in the future. My dissertation project is a mixed methods analysis, that aims to a) characterize the HIV and drug use risk environment and b) highlight environmental effects on sub-optimal HIV care in Nairobi, Kenya. If someone would have told me 7+ years ago that I would be earning my doctorate degree and addressing health issues in Latinx communities and in Nairobi, Kenya, I would have laughed at them. The moral of this story is to cease every opportunity, soñar grande and do not underestimate your potential.
What advice can you give to young people who have an interest in Hispanic health or the health professions?
My advice is to trust in your abilities, be persistent, invest in mentors who invest in you and as you “climb” in your career, make sure you reach-back to lift-up others. As young Chicanxs/Latinxs, we are not told that being bilingual and bicultural is a unique skill that can tremendously improve the health and wellbeing of Latinxs communities, globally. Use your skills to bring positive changes to our communities and set boundaries on your workload. Unfortunately, there were many employers who tried to take advantage of my skills by asking me to take-on additional responsibilities, which delayed my overall productivity. Be cautious, but get involved with Latinx-focused health organizations early to gain hands-on experience and to build your network of supporters. Set informational interviews with people conducting work that interests you. If your emails or phone calls are not being answered, be persistent and try a new angle (this is where being una cabezuda pays off.) I have gotten turned down, ghosted and had mentors that did not have my best interest, so do not be discouraged. You will find supportive mentors along your journey that see your determination and support your career path, so focus on the positive and stay connected with your supporters. Finally, as you start to build your career, remember that there are other young Latinxs that will identify with your story and they may not have the support of friends, family, colleagues or professors. There is an overwhelming amount of work needed within Latinx health and spanning various disciplines like research, practice, policy, management, etc. and we all need to be encouraging more young Latinxs to pursue health-related careers.
Figure 1: Natasha Ludwig-Barron, MPH, HSHPS Fellow (right) and Jamila Stockman, PhD, MPH, HSHPS mentor and Assistant Professor at UC San Diego, Division of Global Public Health (left), present their research at the 2011 National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, GA.
Figure 2: Natasha Ludwig-Barron, MPH, University of Washington, Department of Epidemiology, Doctoral Candidate, presenting her dissertation project at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) 2019 Diversity Supplement Professional Development Workshop in Bethesda, MD.