Race and Genetics

Next Thursday, I’ll be mediating a discussion at school between a group of scholarship recipients and Dr. Dorothy Roberts. Dr. Roberts is the author of a book on race called “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century“. Her major thesis in the book is that there is no such thing as “race” as we know it in the United States right now. There is no “Black” and “White” and “Hispanic” and “Asian” and such. She uses history and science to explain how race came into being as more of a social construct — a way of splitting people apart and keeping the undesirables away — than anything that is real. In short, race should not be treated as a biological trait.

As an epidemiologist and medical technologist, I’m very much aware of the different risks associated with being in different races. For example, Blacks in the United States are more likely to represent people with high blood pressure. In fact, the recommendation on sodium (salt) intake is different for Blacks than for Whites:

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Lawful and Unlawful Immigration

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” – US Constitution, XIV Amendment

I may have told you this story before. When I first moved up to Pennsylvania, almost 14 years ago, I was pulled over by a cop. He sat in his car, lights on, for about 20 minutes until a state trooper car pulled up behind him. Then they both came toward my car. I was a little perplexed because, from what I could gather, I was being pulled over for a traffic violation. That, or I looked like someone they were looking for. As it turns out, I was being pulled over for having an expired inspection sticker on my car. The reason for the state trooper showing up is that the cop didn’t speak any Spanish. He called for a translator before speaking to me because, well, because I’m Hispanic.

I can’t think of any other reason. There was nothing else about me but the color of my skin that said to him that I spoke Spanish. At the same time, there was nothing about me that would say to him that I didn’t speak English. Over the next ten years I lived in Waynesboro, I became keenly aware of the “immigration problem” that the United States is facing. Continue reading

A visit to my future school

Yesterday, I went to the university for “accepted students’ day.” The first thing I noticed was the age of almost everyone there. They were quite young. They were kids. But that wasn’t all. I also noticed that most of them were women. And then I noticed something else, but I’ll tell you more on that in a minute.

The program began with a welcome message from the dean of students and the assistant dean of the school. They both did the usual thing of giving us some stats on the school, some history, and then telling us what would be given to us and what we’d be giving back. (Aside from money, we’re expected to give the school some of our time in the form of volunteer work in the community.) I was wondering why they were telling us all this as if trying to sell the school. Well, as it turns out, there were quite the number of students there who were not convinced that the university was the place to be. That surprised me because it is one of the most prestigious school of public health in the country and the world. The list of alumni is a who’s who of public health leaders.

Then again, I totally get it. Not everyone wants to pick up and move to Baltimore.

The second part of the morning was a seminar titled “The Pinto, The Beretta, and The Spicy Chicken Melt: Litigating for Public Health” by Stephen Teret, JD, MPH. He talked to us about how the car companies didn’t want to put airbags in their cars until they were sued into doing it. The company that makes the Beretta pistol didn’t have a “one in the chamber” warning button until they were sued for an accidental shooting. Then he talked about food high in salt (the spicy chicken melt being the example) and how this food could cause hypertension (or exacerbate it). However, unlike with the Ford Pinto and the Beretta pistol, it would be hard to sue food manufacturers over the amount of salt they put in food. This would be because no one food item could be blamed individually for the hypertension. Overall, it was a great presentation, and Mr. Teret came over, shook my hand, and introduced himself. He seemed impressed when I told him I’d be a DrPH candidate. (More on that in a little bit as well.)

Then the presenters had some kids (young people) get up on the stage and talk about living in Baltimore. It was a group of six current students, five of them females. They sung Baltimore’s praises and talked about the different neighborhoods in the city. All of that was not too relevant to me since I’ve been commuting into Baltimore for almost six years now. I’ve been getting lost in the city a little bit longer than that. And I ran the Baltimore Marathon in 2005, so I’m somewhat well-acquainted with the city. Still, it was good to hear how they live there and think that it’s a good place to live, even with the inherent problems of the big city.

The second half of the day was a series of meetings with the epidemiology faculty and staff. The epidemiology program manager came over to introduce herself. I had only talked to her via email, so it was good to meet her in person. She turned out to be a lovely woman who seemed to be on top of things in the department. She knew all about my struggles to get admitted this time around, and she told me that my (very much) improved GRE scores and additional letters of recommendation impressed the admissions committee members. We also got to talking about some options to finance my education there. (It’s not cheap to go to that school, but the benefits of having its name on your diploma are enormous and quite profitable.) In short, I’m not worried about how to pay for it. It will get done.

We went around the room and introduced ourselves as well. The group was mostly PhD candidates, a couple of MPH candidates, and me, the DrPH. A few of the folks that I met seemed impressed about me going for the DrPH. You see, the DrPH degree is not so much about research. Yes, I could do research if I wanted to, but the DrPH is not aimed at that. It is also not aimed at people who want to be professors right off the bat. The DrPH is aimed at people who want to take research findings and existing evidence and apply it right away to public health problems. (Sound familiar?) That’s why they were impressed with my “Epi Night School” blog, because I was taking what I had learned in epidemiology and translating it to the masses. That’s what doctors in public health do; They work in settings where problems need to be addressed quickly and with the best plan possible. So I have a lot to learn about how to weigh evidence for all it is worth and then how to apply it. The program will also have some components on how to relate to the media and how to do public speaking. (Those should not be too hard. I already talk to the media once in a while.)

Next, I met with one of the professors. She was an interesting woman who I had inadvertently “met” a couple of years back when she had emailed me about information on influenza. She remembered me from those exchanges, and I was also told that my weekly flu reports were used as examples on how to put epidemiological findings into practice. That made me happy. It always makes me happy to know that “my baby” (the flu surveillance system) is doing good things in the community and keeping people informed. After all, that’s why I have worked to upgrade and improve it every single year. We then talked about what I wanted to do with the DrPh degree. Finally, we talked about a few projects that I have in mind and how she and her MPH students could get in on them.

Oh, and we also talked about anti-vaccine people and the dirty tricks they’ve pulled to try to get me fired from my job at the health department. But that was a short conversation and more of an anecdote. They, the anti-vaccine people, will have a very hard time trying to get me fired from school… If they even try.

Finally, I met with the director of the DrPH in epidemiology program. Like me, he is a Mexican immigrant to the United States. He went to medical school in Mexico and then came to the US to study public health. His resume is quite impressive, and I can only hope to be half the public health professional he has been. We talked for about two hours, all in Spanish, about what is expected of me and what I expect to gain from the program. What is expected from me is hard work and dedication. The first year alone is going to be loaded with classes on epidemiology, biostatistics, and electives on public health issues of the day. They will all have readings, home work, and, of course, exams. There will then be a cumulative exam at the end of the first year before I can go on to the next year.

I have to admit that I swallowed hard when I read the curriculum for the first year. But I’m not afraid.

I’ll also be working with the professors on a few side projects and trying to build up my professional resume, of course. This includes attending conferences and seminars, maybe presenting some stuff. In short, there is going to be a lot for me to do that first year, and also in the years after that. I expect to be done in 4 to 5 years at the most. Let’s hope I can come through.

Remember those other things I noticed? We discussed how there seems to be a lack of African Americans involved in public health. The few Blacks that I saw in the morning presentations were mostly from Africa. There were very, very few African Americans. The professor and I discussed this at length. We agreed that this was a problem since Baltimore is such an overwhelmingly Black city in terms of population and culture. (So is Washington, DC, by the way.) But African American leaders in public health were lacking. This is is the case even when the current US Surgeon General is an African American female. So we talked about maybe working some smaller projects on recruitment of African Americans into public health, even if they didn’t go to the university where I’m going. We just need more people as role models.

As far as Hispanics in public health, there is also a shortage when it comes to representation, but it’s not readily noticeable in Baltimore because the city’s population is not very heavy on Hispanics. (Although they are a growing demographic.)

The visiting day ended with a small reception where I got to meet the rest of my cohort. The great majority of them were future PhD candidates in epidemiology with concentrations in genetics, public policy, and global health. I was the only future DrPH candidate there, though they did accept a fellow epidemiologist from the state of Kansas (or was it Arkansas?), but she was unable to attend. They did mention her name, but I’m horrible with names and faces. Anyway, I met the other folks, and they seem very smart and very driven. One of them has his master’s in nursing as well as an MPH. Many of them have done heavy duty research and are looking to do more of it. I, on the other hand, want to keep the research to a minimum and only to be into looking at what works in taking the knowledge and evidence gained by the PhDs and applying it to current problems. The future PhDs knew this and talked to me about it. They said that I was brave in going into this since the DrPH curriculum seemed “intense.” It is, and I’m up for it.

And, no, I’m not being brave… I’m taking the next natural step in my progression from “lab boy” to “public health leader” to… To something.

Ever heard of minstrel shows?

If you have the time, I highly suggest that you look at this ESPN report on racism in Europe:


The report talks about incidents in Europe where soccer players of color have been called names, taunted, or worse because they are Black (or non-White). Samuel Eto’o, a Cameroonian playing soccer in Europe once had bananas thrown at him by fans calling him racist names and making monkey noises. That particular incident really bothered me as a soccer fan and as a Mexican living in a very White area of the country. Continue reading