Story Health

How Understanding Health Disparities Abroad Helps California's Communities

Ryan ZumMallen


​San Diego State University student Sean Luján (center) and fellow student researchers in Ghana. Photo courtesy of Sean Luján


​​​One student researched the medicinal properties of local plants in Ghana. Others tested the sea snail venom on human cells in Mexico, and still other students met with cancer patients in Jordan to better understand approaches to prevention, early detection, and treatment.

These horizon-broadening experiences were made possible by summer research fellowships in the Minority Health and Health Disparities International Research Training (MHIRT) program at San Diego State University.

Health disparities refer to factors such as race or ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, socioeconomic status, or location that affect a person's ability to stay or become healthy, according to the federal government's Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The MHIRT program not only studies public health issues in under-represented communities around the world, it also opens doors for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and racial/ethnic groups under-represented in scientific research themselves.

MHIRT's goal is to advance research into public health disparities while also increasing diversity in the field of science. Ultimately, the program hopes to graduate students who will devote their professional lives to addressing healthcare disparities in the U.S..

That effort got a significant boost recently when the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), awarded the MHIRT program a $10 million endowment to continue its work.

One example of the type of work MHIRT aims to encourage is that of Guadalupe X. "Suchi" Ayala, Ph.D., associate dean for research in the College of Health and Human Services at San Diego State and a principal investigator for the endowment. An alum herself, Dr. Ayala's research has focused on health behaviors of Latinos in the San Diego community.

San Diego State is not alone in wanting to understand and reduce health disparities in surrounding communities. California State University, Fullerton has an MHIRT program of its own. Elsewhere in the CSU, campuses at San Bernardino, San Francisco, Long Beach, and Northridge place emphasis on health equity in their local communities.

MHIRT students at San Diego State can also study in Taiwan, Uganda, and, following a one-year hiatus this summer, Peru. Applications for the next round of fellowships will open on October 1, 2016.

Student Success; Underrepresented Communities; Research