UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso Celebrates 25-Year History, Large Graduating Class

HOUSTON – (May 11, 2017) – As The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) School of Public Health in El Paso prepares to graduate its largest class in more than 15 years, the campus also celebrates 25 years in the El Paso community.

The UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso opened in 1992 less than a mile away from the U.S.-Mexico border and is one of six campuses for the school. Its researchers have led groundbreaking studies on the unique health problems facing border populations and have helped promote health services for the Mexican-American community.

Researchers also focus on areas such as childhood obesity and microbial risk assessment of water quality.

“The El Paso campus is so important in the community because of how it has provided a public health standard and structure in the region,” said Kristina Mena, Ph.D., associate professor and interim regional dean of the El Paso campus. “What makes this campus so unique is that students can obtain a degree from the largest medical center in the world without ever having to leave El Paso and that fact has drawn people to us.”

Since the campus’ inception, graduates have gone on to complete medical residencies through the M.D/M.P.H program, while others have accepted prominent positions at public health agencies, non-profit organizations and foundations, as well as positions in academia.

In 2014, pediatrician Hector Ocaranza, M.D., M.P.H, graduated from UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso with a master’s degree in public health. He now serves as the El Paso City-County health authority and serves as a reputable source for guidance regarding outbreaks and other public health issues.

“We have a very diverse campus in terms of students and faculty. Our faculty represent the core disciplines of public health,” Mena said. “What I am most proud of is that even though the research each of us do is different, we have all been able to learn and engage with the community. That has been an enriching part of my experience here.”

To commemorate the special occasion, the commencement ceremony and anniversary celebration have been combined to offer students, their families and community leaders the opportunity to learn about the mark the campus has made in the community.

Paul L. Foster, chairman of the Board of Regents at The University of Texas System and founder of Western Refining, will serve as keynote speaker at the May 18 celebration. 

Key UTHealth School of Public Health El Paso researchers and findings over the past 25 years:

Kristina Mena, Ph.D., was recently awarded the Cutting Edge Award by the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The award recognizes women who have a proven track record of success and have broken boundaries. Mena was reappointed to serve a second term on the USEPA Chartered Science Advisory Board and the Drinking Water Committee. She has led research in water quality, food safety and human health risk assessment.

Mena, who specializes in microbial risk assessment, shared her expertise during the 2016 Summer Olympics held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After The Associated Press conducted a study on the water quality in Rio and found high levels of pathogens, the news organization asked Mena to translate those findings and provide an assessment of what the data meant for public health. Based on the numbers from the study, Mena determined that there was a high chance for infection if the water was ingested.

Additionally, Mena has conducted risk assessments to evaluate the transmission of pathogens in the farm and hospital environments.

Louis Brown, Ph.D., leads four projects that focus on health promotion interventions. One project is Teens Against Tobacco Use (TATU), where youth serve as health educators and health policy advocates. A second program, Healthy Fit, allows community health workers to administer a health screening and use motivational interviewing to help participants follow through on recommendations for cancer screenings, immunizations, physical activity, nutrition and a weight loss support group. Red de Coaliciones Comunitarias is a network of more than 20 youth substance use prevention coalitions across Mexico that help enhance community coalition capacity and functioning. Brown’s newest project, Youth Advocating for Policy EXecution (Youth APEX), is an after-school project that trains high school students to become advocates for tobacco policy change.

George Di Giovanni, Ph.D., specializes in laboratory and field-based research for the detection, infectivity determination and molecular analysis of waterborne pathogens to aid development of control strategies. Ongoing bacterial source tracking projects identify animal and human fecal pollution sources in watersheds across Texas to help restore water quality and protect public health. Other projects focus on specific waterborne pathogens and research solutions to support sound drinking water regulations.

Eric C. Jones, Ph.D., conducts three research projects on disaster impact, which includes fieldwork on the relationship between social networks and individual well-being. Jones is also using social network analysis to support two projects on public understanding of science. One aspect focuses on rural science fairs in several communities in Arizona and a second focuses on middle school students’ online classroom conversations about science and technology.

Nuria Homedes, M.D., Dr.PH, has served as a specialist in preventive and internal medicine. Homedes has helped in implementing projects aimed at changing the health care delivery system through health promotion activities and continuing education activities for physicians and nurses.

Roberto Rodriguez, Ph.D., conducts research on the relationship between enteric or intestinal viruses and human chronic diseases. Some of his research also focuses on water disparities issues in communities around the U.S.-Mexico border.

Patrick M. Tarwater, Ph.D., has conducted research on the effectiveness of antiretroviral therapies on the incidence of opportunistic infections before and after AIDS diagnosis. Additionally, Tarwater has contributed his expertise in studying the effects of population density on the spread of disease.