“Without data equity, we will not achieve health equity.”

Whether leading the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, teaching graduate students at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health or speaking with lawmakers in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., Ninez Ponce is widely esteemed for her decades-long dedication to turning this ideal into reality.

In her work, Ponce has helped ensure public health data collection goes beyond just including historically underrepresented communities; she has centered these communities to understand their unique needs and developed health programs and policies to address them. In recognition of this commitment, Ponce today received the 2024 Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award from the CDC Foundation and the James F. and Sarah T. Fries Foundation.

“Helping make sure health policies live up to their promises and truly benefit everyone has been my life’s work. Receiving an honor like this wouldn’t have been possible without colleagues, mentors and collaborators,” said Ponce, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and holder of the Fred W. and Pamela K. Wasserman Chair in Health Policy and Management at the Fielding School. “As a professor at UCLA, being able to share my passion for this work with the next generation of health policy scholars is a humbling honor.”

The Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award was established in 1992 in memory of James and Sarah Fries’ late daughter, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and co-director of the Cancer Outreach Program, which uses behavioral and educational approaches to reduce cancer incidence. The $50,000 prize is awarded annually to an individual who has made substantial contributions to their area of health education.

“We’re thrilled to honor Ninez Ponce for her scholarship and policy advocacy for data equity and representativeness that has generated new and crucial understandings of racial and ethnic health disparities, particularly for Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander populations,” said Dr. Judy Monroe, president and CEO of the CDC Foundation. “The public health data infrastructure she and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research have built in California has provided comprehensive findings that have informed state and federal policy and enabled communities to identify key health needs, tailor interventions and advocate for resources to address health disparities.”

As one of the founders of the California Health Interview Survey, or CHIS, nearly 25 years ago, Ponce helped pioneer ways to democratize data and put it into the hands of the public in ways that inform, educate and result in grassroots-driven policy change. The center’s data and research have been cited in bills and cases on health care reform in California, the impact of the federal “public charge” rule, food assistance for undocumented immigrants and much more.

“Working at a place like UCLA — a public research university largely funded by taxpayers — we have a responsibility to create knowledge and sharpen expertise that’s shared to benefit the public good,” Ponce said.

CHIS, led by Ponce, is the largest population-based state health survey in the nation and a leading source of credible and comprehensive data on the health and health care needs of California’s large and diverse population. CHIS is committed to making its data available to the public through free and accessible online tools and trainings. Last year, users ran more than 107,000 queries in CHIS databases — AskCHIS and AskCHIS Neighborhood Edition — totaling more than 1.8 million queries since inception.

“It’s so gratifying to see how many organizations and people use California Health Interview Survey data,” Ponce said. “It’s a powerful reminder about how putting information into the hands of the public exemplifies what we set out to do in creating the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.”

An elected member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, Ponce currently serves on the Data Disaggregation workgroup for the White House Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander Commission. She is also an associate editor for diversity, equity and inclusion at JAMA Health Forum, on the editorial boards of Milbank Quarterly, Health Services Research and Health Affairs Scholar, and has served on the board of scientific counselors for the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2021, Ponce served as a commissioner for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Transforming Public Health Data Initiative. In 2019, she and her team received the AcademyHealth Impact award for their contributions to population health measurement to inform public policies.

As a recognized leader in using data to advance health equity, the CHPR in December scaled its work nationally by launching the UCLA Data Equity Center. This initiative will team UCLA researchers and other experts in data science with organizations, scholars and agencies across the country to help ensure that historically marginalized populations are more accurately represented in information used by government, business and philanthropy to make crucial decisions.

“In all of Dr. Ponce’s work, she brings a steady, calm, and inspiring voice to her education efforts, bringing along policymakers and program leaders to understand the distributional impacts of the choices they make and the importance of making the ‘invisible, visible’ by ensuring data disaggregation,” said Dr. Lisa Simpson, AcademyHealth president and CEO, who nominated Ponce for the Elizabeth Fries Health Education Award.