Newswise — A move to the heart of a dynamic new home for health care institutions is symbolic of the legacy that The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health has built in 27 years in El Paso.

The school, an integral part of the growing biomedical and health care community in this key border town that links Texas, New Mexico, and the nation of Mexico, is now located in El Paso’s Cardwell Collaborative Building.

Along with enjoying the energy of its new home, the school is celebrating the naming of the campus’s dean, Kristina Mena, MSPH, PhD, an 18-year resident of the city who received the 2017 Cutting Edge Award from the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is vice chair of El Paso Water’s Public Service Board.

“There are many things I love about El Paso,” Mena said. “The coordination among health care entities in the Paso del Norte Region helps us address public health issues characterized by diversity and the positioning of the city itself. We all have the same goal.”

That shared mission is to improve the lives of those who live in the border area.

“There’s a synergism within health care in El Paso that makes this region and the different entities here well-positioned to tackle the issues that foster diabetes, obesity, and other health problems that affect the state of Texas as a whole,” Mena said.

Moving the offices and classrooms to the Cardwell Collaborative Building enhances students’ accessibility to health care partnerships spearheaded by the Medical Center of the Americas (MCA) Foundation, a non-profit organization designed to enhance the growth of the city’s medical complex.

“We are thrilled to have UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso at the MCA’s Cardwell Collaborative and on the MCA campus,” said Emma W. Schwartz, MPH, president of the MCA Foundation. “Public health education and research play a vital role in the health care ecosystem. Having UTHealth here on our growing medical campus will not only give them more visibility in our community as an education and career option, but it will also create many new collaboration opportunities.” 

The school is now within walking distance of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine, part of Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. The two schools already partner to offer an MD/MPH degree.

“The UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso has been a great asset to the community. It is nice that they have a permanent home now, nearer to our campus, and it is good to have Dr. Mena serve as regional dean. That will help her recruit more individuals to focus on public health in El Paso,” said Richard Lange, MD, MBA, dean of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine.

The UTHealth School of Public Health will be next door to the coming Texas Tech’s Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine and in close proximity to the City of El Paso Department of Public Health, University Medical Center of El Paso, and El Paso Children’s Hospital. By November, the Veterans Affairs Wellness Center is scheduled to open.

“We are an academic health department, affiliated with all the universities and colleges in the area,” said Robert Resendes, director of the City of El Paso Department of Public Health. “Our strategic goal is to provide exceptional education opportunities. The UTHealth School of Public Health has moved into a great physical neighborhood. We host quite a few students from the school and they can walk to our building now.”

The new home is also enhancing the faculty’s ability to foster relationships. When Mena asked a local health leader a few years ago what he thought the No. 1 health issue in the region was, he said it was unaccompanied children crossing the border.

While she thought he would say diabetes or obesity, she found him to be prescient. The challenges facing children and immigrant families as they cross the border into El Paso represent what many families in other regions encounter. Limited access to health care, lack of adequate housing, and an absence of piped water in some neighborhoods lead to both acute and chronic health concerns.

“This is our demographic and it is a snapshot of what is happening in other parts of the United States,” Mena said. “It is humbling for me to be here and partner with those living in the region in a way that allows our campus to address those issues.”

The school is an asset for the area, said Jon Barela, CEO of the Borderplex Alliance, a nonprofit organization advocating for economic development in the region. “There are a number of health disparities in the border region, and the UTHealth School of Public Health El Paso campus is uniquely positioned to address them,” Barela said. “They are a recognized leader in public health, developing solutions as well as training graduates to meet those needs.”

Current research

Mena’s specific area of interest is human health risk assessment, and she serves as program head of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health. Her research specifically addresses disease transmission through water and food, most notably among athletes competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Her work ranges from informing health risks impacting children playing on oil-contaminated beaches to advising NASA flight crews as they grow food in space.

UTHealth School of Public Health’s Louis Brown, PhD, and Eric Jones, PhD, are researching ways to enhance community coalitions’ ability to bridge the gap between research and practice in drug prevention programs and policies. Brown serves as the principal investigator and Jones is a co-investigator on the study, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Brown recently published results of a study on a peer-to-peer tobacco prevention program for middle and high school students in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Results showed that students who received the tobacco prevention presentation had lower tobacco susceptibility scores than students who had not received the presentation.

Jones is interested in researching how people respond to extreme events and the potential role of social networks in the recovery process. Cancer survivorship is one area he hopes to research more closely. In a recent review article, Jones and colleagues found relatively little research conducted that uses formal social network analysis or the measurement of the ties between people, or the ties between organizations. They hope to conduct research on how cancer survivors are supported and constrained by their personal networks.

Leah Whigham, PhD, a world-renowned expert in nutrition and obesity, has recently joined the faculty to establish a center focused on reducing the burden of chronic diseases such as diabetes and obesity.

“It is a great opportunity to build a new research center that focuses on improving people’s health,” Whigham said. “We want to make sure that the science I and others generate is being used.”