For more than two decades, Mario De La Rosa has helped students build careers to support vulnerable and underserved communities.
Born in Barranquilla, Colombia, De La Rosa immigrated to the United States when he was 14 years old. His experience as a young immigrant helped shape his commitment to researching Latino health disparities and identifying ways to serve disadvantaged populations better. He graduated with a doctoral degree in social work from The Ohio State University and has devoted his life to research that focuses on Latino substance abuse, substance use as a risk factor for HIV/AIDS, violence, delinquency and cross-cultural issues. He’s a professor at the School of Social Work at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work and the director of FIU’s Center for Research on U.S. Latino HIV/AIDS and Drug Abuse (CRUSADA).
Earlier this month, De La Rosa was appointed by Provost Kenneth G. Furton, Tomás R. Guilarte, dean of Stempel College, and Andres Gil, vice president of research at FIU, Endowed University Professor in Health Equity—a position made possible by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) $9.5 million endowment award. Along with De La Rosa’s appointment, the award has helped power a robust health disparities research and training program at FIU.
De La Rosa recently spoke with FIU News to share more about his new role and vision for the future.
You’ve been at FIU since 1999 and have now received this new appointment. What does being an endowed professor mean to you?
I see this role as one that will help me continue to help the university become a premier institution for conducting new research in health disparities. In addition, it will allow me to collaborate with individuals at other universities, and hopefully, young scholars at FIU and elsewhere. I want to help these young scholars become premier health disparities researchers in their chosen areas of endeavors.
Going back to the start, what initially got you interested in health disparities research?
Well, I’m an immigrant. I came to this country, and, with time in the U.S., I developed an interest in understanding what role social and cultural factors played in helping individuals become successful persons in a new country. I also wanted to learn about the roles that communities and institutions play in helping immigrants adjust to their host country.
I became aware of the importance of such social-cultural factors in shaping the lives of immigrants through my own immigrant experience, which motivated me to pursue Latino health disparity research. It is a path that I follow and will continue to pursue for the rest of my life.
The pandemic has impacted communities across the country. How has your work with communities changed, and in what ways have you needed to adapt?
Oh, it’s been an incredible challenge. The pandemic has laid bare many issues related to health disparities because many of the communities that are impacted are the most in need, particularly African-American, Latino and immigrant communities. It’s not easy because a lot of our work focuses on engagement with local communities, and we have not been able to do that on a face-to-face basis. So, for example, there’s a community we work with, and we used to meet face-to-face, and those interactions were wonderful. However, now we’re meeting via Zoom, which, while it has some advantages, is still missing the face-to-face human interaction. These human interactions are so essential to community engagement in health disparity research.
In this new challenging environment, you have to be flexible and try to do your best to reach out to people in the community. I hoped that we could go back to doing work in the community, but this may not be possible due to the recent increase in COVID-19 infection rates in Miami-Dade County related to the Delta variant.
You’ve shared how important it is to train young scholars in this type of work. Why is research in health disparities so important?
If we don’t have healthy communities and individuals, our society as a whole will not work well. We need a society that protects and takes care of the people who are most in need. We need a social safety net that provides vulnerable communities with the sources necessary for its residents to live in healthy environments and access adequate health care.
Health disparities researchers study the influences that societal and community-wide factors such as poverty and racism have on the well-being of vulnerable and disadvantaged populations to improve their health conditions.
You’ve done impactful work, including helping to secure a $9.5 million endowment from the NIH. What’s next?
What I have achieved has not just been achieved individually. It’s been achieved collectively through the work we have done at CRUSADA, a center I founded with my colleagues. It’s an achievement of many individuals. So, I don’t consider this endowment to belong to just me. It belongs to all of those who have had an affiliation to CRUSADA, which includes students, faculty, staff and higher administration at FIU.
As for what’s next, for me? I want to continue to mentor young scholars. To tell you the truth, it’s now more important for me that these young scholars develop their research careers. Nowadays, I get so much joy from hearing news about someone that I worked with, that I mentored, getting funded for NIH or other funding sources, publishing a paper in a high-impact journal, or presenting their study findings at major scientific conferences.
We need to pave the way for the next generation of health disparity researchers so they can do much greater things than we have done and find solutions to some of the most vexing health disparity problems that my generation of researchers have not been able to solve.