School of Public Health

Deepening SDSU’s Commitment to Address Healthcare Disparities

The School of Public Health has a long history of researching healthcare disparities and exploring solutions. Dr. Gregory Talavera’s work with chronic disease and Dr. Elva Arredondo’s work with disparities in cancer diagnosis and care are great examples. This year the school is making a major effort to expand this research by creating the SDSU HealthLINK Center.

Suchi AyalaThis effort started last year when Dr. Guadalupe Ayala secured a $10 million grant for infrastructure from NIH’s National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD). This year, she added an additional $19.9 million award — one of the largest grant awards SDSU has ever received. It will create the new HealthLINK center for research on health disparities throughout San Diego and Imperial counties. The funding will allow the creation of the center as well as funding for faculty and student research and center staff. The five-year award is part of an effort by NIMHD to support the research enterprise of minority-serving institutions like SDSU. (The university is a federally designated Hispanic-serving institution, and 31.5 percent of first-year students are underrepresented minorities.)

The center will be housed near SDSU on Alvarado Street, where several other SDSU research facilities already exist. This is better for patients and research subjects because it does not force them to come to campus and struggle with parking and the potential for a long walk from the parking lot to the lab. It also means that patients won’t get lost on campus. The clinical research center will house a biomedical lab and a physiology lab. The award funds key personnel—like phlebotomists and data managers—to support research, and creates repositories of critical information, like study results and faculty expertise. Ayala and psychology professor Dr. Kristen Wells are leading the project.

The center strengthens relationships with key healthcare and public health organizations in the San Diego region, including the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency and two federally qualified health centers, Clínicas de Salud del Pueblo, Inc. and Family Health Centers of San Diego. The center will bring together more than two dozen faculty engaged in high-impact, community-centered and cross-disciplinary collaborations. Research teams within the center will include experienced investigators and early career scientists, part of a strategic effort to ensure the next generation of scientists is prepared to embark on critical health-related research. To further support post-doctoral fellows and early career scientists, the award establishes annual seed funding. Each year, four awardees will receive between $30,000 and $50,000 to support pilot projects.

Ayala thinks this is a perfect pairing with her other recent award – being named the Zahn Professor of Creativity and Innovation. The two-year appointment, supported by the San Diego-based Moxie Foundation, is intended to advance curricular, experiential, and interdisciplinary opportunities for students and fellow faculty. In this new role, she will be working to bring research into the classroom, with a special emphasis on crossdiscipline projects. She notes that this is already happening around campus, but this puts more emphasis on it. She is especially looking forward to being able to use the research learnings from the HealthLINK Center as a springboard for student projects.

Ayala notes that students are keen to use technology and social media to solve public health issues. “What I would love to be able to do is bring the disciplines of public health and electrical engineering, for example, into the classroom together,” said Ayala. “In this way, public health students can work alongside engineering students in programming digital applications for health,” she explained. “Similarly, electrical engineering students can learn from public health students about which behaviors are more clinically relevant to monitor.”

“Dr. Ayala has achieved impressive success in attracting funding for transdisciplinary research in health sciences at SDSU,” said Joseph Johnson, Jr., Interim Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, who made the appointment. “She has a vision and a passion for using collaboration to improve intervention and health care in the community. Her ideas will help promote the culture of creativity and innovation that the Moxie Foundation has fostered through its longstanding partnership with SDSU.”

Ayala said she wants to use the position to build on work funded by the NIMHD “and start integrating some of its philosophy and practice into the classroom.” The health sciences “have no curriculum on how to develop an app, or how to use technology to monitor health. We are only beginning to understand how to use the mounds of data available to us on a person’s health.Yet, our graduates will be working in fields requiring knowledge of technology and data science. If we don’t equip them with these skills, we’re doing them, and us, a disservice,” she said.

Suchi Award
Dr. Ayala (in the red jacket) was joined by SDSU President Dr. Adela De la Torre (white jacket) and her parents Marta and Reynaldo Ayala at the awards ceremony for the Wang Family Excellance Award.

Ayala said the future in public health requires working with engineers and computational scientists who live and breathe “big data” and know how to crunch numbers in a more effective way. The result of these collaborations could bring students from the colleges of Health and Human Services, Engineering and Sciences together in new and different ways to capitalize on the strengths of their respective disciplines.

In recognition of her substantive body of research, innovative teaching abilities and transformative community-based work, Ayala also received the highest honor the California State University Chancellor’s office grants: the 2019 Wang Family Excellence Award for Outstanding Faculty Scholarship. Ayala and four other recipients will each receive a $20,000 award established through a gift from CSU Trustee Emeritus Stanley T. Wangand administered through the CSU Foundation.

Ayala credits her parents as her inspiration for her focus on social justice and helping underserved communities. “My entire family is very focused on education, and we grew up social-justice-minded,” she said. “Everything they taught me and trained me to do around improving community in terms of structures and systems I have been able to apply, and I have done so in a way that focuses on research and bringing evidence to practice.”