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From Counterintuitive Research Findings, A New Career Path

September 26, 2018

During my senior year of college I learned three valuable things. First, three dogs is not too many for one house. Second, time management skills are actually valuable. Third, and most important, I learned how to conduct a research project from start to finish.

When I began my last semester at the University of Colorado Denver, I was most excited for Capstone, the last required class for my major. I knew from talking to other students that I would have the opportunity to conduct my own research project without any assigned topics or guidelines. My excitement was mixed with uneasiness. The opportunities were endless – what would I research?

This led me to think about why I ended up majoring in public health. I had wanted to be a doctor ever since I could remember. I enjoyed science and wanted to use science to help others. My parents, who are Mexican immigrants, influenced me greatly. They wanted me to follow a career path that would ensure financial stability, something they often struggled with.

Adriana Gomez and family, circa late 1990s
Photo: Adriana Gomez (bottom right) and family
members, c. late 1990s

I never once thought that I was following the wrong path until I sat in one of my first college classes and my professor discussed how life expectancy often varies by ZIP code. I quickly realized I was more interested in preventing disease and promoting human health than in treating disease. Before that lecture, I did not know that public health even existed. Soon after, I dropped pre-med and decided to major in public health.

With all this in mind, I was curious to learn more about why Hispanic, and specifically Mexican, women had such a low incidence of babies with low birth weights. The rate was similar to that of white women, even though Mexican mothers typically have lower educational attainment and income. I did some additional research and framed my question: Is there a difference in rates of low birth weight between foreign-born Mexican women and U.S.-born Mexican-origin women?   

I found a huge federal database on birth statistics. I cleaned up the data and ended up with a sample size of more than half a million women. I worked closely with my professor to learn new statistical analysis methods. I found that the odds that a Mexican mother will have a low birth weight baby is 1.242 times higher if she is born in the United States than if she were born outside this country. In other words, being born in the United States increases the odds of having a low birth weight baby by 24.2 percent.

The results are very counterintuitive. Women born in the United States tend to have higher incomes and levels of education, and they reside in a country with the most advanced medicine in the world. Yet they still end up with worse outcomes.

I don’t know exactly why this is the case, but I know that it’s the role of public health to determine what it is about the culture of health in the United States that may contribute to worse birth outcomes for these women. Better data and more research can help identify problems like this and eventually lead to solutions. This research confirmed that I made the right decision in changing my career path. I want to help identify a problem, research, and propose solutions. I bring this motivation to contribute to public health with me as I begin my new job as a research analyst at the Colorado Health Institute.

This post is an introduction to CHI research analyst Adriana Gomez. Find her on Twitter @CHI_AGomez

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