Latinas build research careers through CRUSADA

The Center for Research on U.S. Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse at FIU assists Latino communities throughout South Florida. This multidisciplinary center also serves as a training ground for the preparation of professionally qualified graduates who contribute to the public good, including two Latinas who have recently been recognized for their accomplishments.

Diana Sheehan

With a total of nine manuscripts published since 2013, Diana Sheehan is a rising star at the FIU Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. She’s successfully competed for a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award, a grant that currently supports her dissertation research. And last summer, Sheehan received an almost unheard of perfect score from reviewers on her application to doctoral candidacy. According to CRUSADA principal investigator, Stempel faculty member and Sheehan’s advisor, professor Mary Jo Trepka, “Diana’s really an outstanding role model for other graduate students.”

Diana M. Sheehan, MPH Doctoral Candidate

Diana M. Sheehan, MPH, Doctoral Candidate

This summer, Sheehan added to her list of achievements an award for Best Poster by a Young Investigator at the 2015 Annual Conference of the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse.

“The purpose of the research presented in the poster was to highlight causes of death among Latinos with HIV attributable to injection drug use, as well as associated individual- and neighborhood-level factors. These findings are important for the targeting of interventions to prevent premature mortality among HIV-positive Latinos, particularly those who use drugs,” Sheehan says.

According to the chair of the poster committee at the conference, Karina Gattamorta, “Sheehan’s poster titled Causes of Death Among HIV-Positive Latinos with History of Injection Drug Use in Florida was selected based on the overall quality of the study and the effectiveness of the communication.”

Raised in Ecuador, Sheehan has long had a desire to serve fellow Latinos through her work. When she arrived at Stempel to complete work on a doctorate in epidemiology, she got the opportunity to do so through CRUSADA.

“I knew right away that I’d made the right choice in joining Stempel and accepting a fellowship at CRUSADA. The training at CRUSADA helped me hit the ground running, which has been motivating. Plus, it’s opened many doors and opportunities for growth.”

Some of those opportunities for growth involve working closely with highly regarded faculty, like professor Kristopher Fennie, an active researcher in Stempel’s Department of Epidemiology who has published more than 50 peer-reviewed reports. He has this to say of Sheehan, “Diana exemplifies the college’s commitment to training Latino researchers in public health, nutrition and social work, as well as its commitment to strengthening our understanding of determinants of health within the Latino communities.”

Gira Ravelo

Gira J. Ravelo, MSW, Ph.D. Research Graduate Assistant

Gira J. Ravelo, MSW, Ph.D. Research Graduate Assistant

Currently working on a Ph.D. in social welfare at Stempel, Gira Ravelo’s research focus is on HIV and health disparities among older Latinos. It’s research that CRUSADA director and Stempel faculty, professor Mario De La Rosa explains is vital to the center’s mission. “Gira’s work focuses on better understanding this group’s needs and comfort level, in order to develop successful intervention programs.”

Born in New York to a Dominican family, Ravelo got to see much of the country when she joined the military at the age of 21. She moved to Florida seven years ago, where she first completed a master’s degree in social work while working as a graduate assistant at CRUSADA.

“I was highly encouraged by CRUSADA faculty to pursue the Ph.D., and eventually they reeled me in. I was subsequently awarded the C-SALUD Fellowship at CRUSADA, which funds the first two years of the Ph.D. program.”

C-SALUD is a National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities P20 Exploratory Center of Excellence housed at CRUSADA. Its activities include research directed toward eliminating substance abuse and HIV health disparities among Latinos, principally those residing in Miami-Dade County.

Through her latest research on an older Latina population, Ravelo was awarded an F31 grant from the National Institute of Mental Health in July 2015. She attributes her success in receiving it to two factors. Firstly, her involvement in C-SALUD, which she says, “[It] provided training in addition to the Ph.D. program’s requirements. So I received individual guidance from faculty members in research projects, publishing of peer reviewed manuscripts, and of course grant writing.”

By the end of the fellowship, Ravelo had two years of experience working on research projects, submission of completed manuscripts, and a draft of her winning F31 grant application.

Secondly, but just as importantly, Ravelo credits her success to her highly engaged mentors—“not only my major professors and committee members at Stempel, but from the entire center, which is comprised of research professors, junior scientists, post-docs and peers, who continuously provide ad hoc mentorship.

Now, Ravelo’s research continues using data collected from a 7-year longitudinal study; she hopes to determine the influence adult Latina daughters’ HIV risk and protective behaviors trajectories have on those of their older Latina mothers. De La Rosa says the findings from Ravelo’s research are needed in the South Florida community.

“Older Latinas are a particularly vulnerable population because they’re usually from traditional backgrounds where sex isn’t talked about openly and depression—which can lead to substance abuse—is under-diagnosed,” De La Rosa says. He adds, “Through Gira’s research, as well as that of many other FIU grads who have worked at CRUSADA, we’re learning more the about the role that social and cultural determinants have on Latino substance abuse and HIV health disparities in order to make a positive difference.”