Growing up the son of migrant farm workers in the Central Valley, Gerardo Moreno had never really considered becoming a doctor. It was out of his realm. Indeed, other than his brother, no one else in his family had ever attended college.
But the notion began to take root when Moreno, an environmental studies and chemistry major at San Jose State University, shadowed a Latino doctor as part of a summer enrichment program in California’s Central Valley. The college student was profoundly struck by the dramatic difference between the wealthy Silicon Valley and the largely poor, medically underserved agricultural valley.
Dr. Gerardo Moreno, the son of a migrant worker in the Central Valley, got help in his career from a campus program that aims to enlarge the pool of researchers working on the health issues of minority elders. Assisting him, above, at the UCLA Family Medicine Clinic in Van Nuys is nurse Adilia Gutierrez.
Initially, the odds of becoming a doctor seemed remote to Moreno. “I didn’t really have the exposure, and I didn’t think someone from my background could pull it off,” he said. But that’s exactly what he did, graduating from the David Geffen School of Medicine in 2004. After completing a family medicine residency at UC San Francisco, he returned to UCLA for a three-year Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars postdoctoral research fellowship and joined the school’s faculty. Moreno, 35, is now an assistant professor of family medicine — the first faculty member from a migrant farm worker background — and a successful researcher. Between October 2009 and December 2010, he published five studies on topics such as workforce diversity and language barriers that affect the health care of Latinos.
A career resource for researchers
Providing Moreno with the mentoring and feedback that allowed him to advance his research career was the UCLA/ Charles R. Drew University Resource Center for Minority Aging Research (RCMAR), a program funded by the National Institute on Aging and devoted to eliminating disparities in health and health care among minority elders.
To widen the pool of researchers working with minorities, the program aims to increase the number of minority physicians and scholars as well as the quality and quantity of research done to benefit older minority adults. Overall, the center aims to improve interventions that will enhance the health and well-being of this segment of the population.
While other universities throughout the country also run resource centers under the same program, the national coordinating headquarters for the federally funded program is located at UCLA. The program operates as the Center for Health Improvement of Minority Elderly.
As a young researcher, Moreno not only received mentoring through the center, but participated in invaluable networking events hosted by the center with other physicians and researchers. “UCLA is so big it’s hard to connect with folks. It’s hard to know who’s doing what,” said Moreno.
“RCMAR has definitely helped me get to where I am,” he said. “The opportunities that RCMAR has provided have been critical to my success at UCLA.”
Moreno is not alone. Since its inception in 2002, the UCLA/Drew center, which operates as the Center for Health Improvement of Minority Elderly, has funded about 25 scholars, said Dr. Carol Mangione, the Barbara A. Levey MD & Gerald S. Levey MD Endowed Chair and professor of medicine and health services. She is also a UCLA/Drew RCMAR principal investigator.
Finding his way
Dr. O. Kenrik Duru, a UCLA assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research, said the center helped him find his research niche.
Duru received a research award in 2003 from the center that allowed him to organize five focus groups that eventually led to the “Sisters in Motion” project. His study found that tying prayer and other spiritual exercises to physical exercise encouraged senior African American women to be more physically active — and healthier. The study garnered wide media attention late last year.
Dr. O. Kenrik Duru made a valuable connection at one of the center's networking events with someone who later assisted him with his research.
“One thing I owe to RCMAR is getting me started with this whole line of research,” Duru said. He met an activity expert who helped him design the Sisters in Motion project at one of the center's networking events.
The RCMAR program was developed by the National Institute on Aging in 1997 to address the lack of scientific data about the health and best healthcare practices for older adults from under-represented minority groups. Although they suffer from higher-than-average levels of disability and chronic health problems, there was a dearth of scientific research addressing their needs, Mangione said. The program offered an innovative way to encourage young researchers from underrepresented groups to work on critically important health issues affecting this population.
The center funds researchers who are engaged in clinical research, as opposed to basic science research, Mangione explained. It draws scholars — M.D.s as well as Ph.Ds —from a variety of areas and disciplines, including family and general internal medicine, geriatrics, gerontology, psychiatry, sociology, nursing, public health and epidemiology.
“We’re looking for people who are passionate about improving the health and quality of life for older people in underrepresented communities, who have a strong interest in conducting community- partnered research,” Mangione added. “We like to connect with people who are rising stars in their fields, such as young investigators who have done good work but could benefit from additional mentoring early in their careers.”
More opportunities when funds end
Even after the year of funding ends, the center continues to mentor scholars, inviting them to participate in programs and activities. Many scholars take advantage of the center’s monthly work-in-progress sessions, scientific-writing retreats and opportunities to attend national meetings.
“Once a RCMAR scholar, always a RCMAR scholar,” Mangione said.
Some scholars, like Dr. Arleen Brown, have become mentors themselves.
As a Harvard University undergraduate, Brown initially did basic science research in endocrinology, but while attending medical school at UC San Francisco, she became increasingly interested in understanding health disparities. She came to UCLA as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar in 1996 and obtained her Ph.D. in health services before joining the medical school faculty.
Dr. Arleen Brown, who benefited from the program, is now a mentor of other scholars.
Part of the first group of RCMAR scholars, she has authored or co-authored several dozen research papers, many of which focus on how the physical and social environments contribute to health outcomes among older persons with diabetes and other chronic conditions. Now an associate professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research, she has mentored other young scholars who have also made valuable contributions toward understanding the role of ethnicity and environment in health.
Brown credits RCMAR with providing her with a forum to network with other people and with giving her skills that helped her obtain funding. The program also helped her gain new perspectives from community members who often attend RCMAR events where she presents her research.
Now, she said, she considers the community's perspectives when planning a project and weighs its importance to the community.
"The RCMAR program provides a really amazing opportunity to interact with a diverse group of researchers and community members that enriches our research and enhances its effectiveness," Brown said.