American Society For Nutrition

Interview with Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla

Interview with Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla

Excellence in Nutrition Research and Practice
Interview with ASN Minority Affairs Committee Chair Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla

ASN is dedicated to the advancement of all nutrition research, and fully supports research that incorporates or focuses on minority populations. In many cases, these populations are underserved by investigative studies. They are also, not coincidentally, at the highest risk for nutrition-related concerns. For that reason, ASN's Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) strives to expand research in these communities, both nationally and globally.  Additionally, the committee works to support the careers of researchers from a wide range of backgrounds, regardless of their specialty.  

We connected with ASN Minority Affairs Committee (MAC) Chair and incoming International Nutrition Council Chair Dr. Rafael Perez-Escamilla of Yale University.  He is currently a Professor of Epidemiology (Chronic Diseases) and Director of the Office of Community Health. In this interview, he offers insight into the importance of the MAC, gives valuable information on how members can get involved, and previews the committee's upcoming activities at the Scientific Sessions and Annual Meeting in conjunction with Experimental Biology (EB). For more information, please see ASN's website.

Interviewer: Could you start by telling us a bit about your work with the Minority Affairs Committee?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: I am the chair of the Minority Affairs Committee, which means I work with both ASN staff and committee members to organize events for minority scientists and to develop symposia related to health and nutrition disparities.  For example, in 2010, the Minority Affairs Committee hosted a very successful symposium on nutrition disparities from bench to bedside and community that was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.  Then, last year at EB, we presented a symposium on early life nutrition disparities and the obesity epidemic, which was recently published in Advances in Nutrition. I am very proud to have been a part of both of these events because, for the first time, we are directly discussing health and nutrition disparities at EB.

Interviewer: What is the committee currently working on that you would like members to know about?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: At the annual meeting in San Diego, we will hold a Minority Affairs Committee meeting where we discuss our accomplishments and receive feedback from ASN members to discover needs that we may not be addressing, particularly in terms of the recruitment and the advancement of minority scientists.  We are also preparing for our Maximizing Access to Research Careers (MARC) Travel Awardees Poster Session and Networking Breakfast; this networking event offers a great opportunity to highlight the work of junior investigators in nutrition from underrepresented minority groups. From our ten MARC recipients, we will select one student to receive the DSM Nutritional Products Grand Prize for Young Minority Investigators.

During our committee meeting we will also share a highly innovative symposium proposal entitled “A Systems Approach to Modeling Nutrition and Health Disparities.”  We hope this proposal will be approved for EB 2013.  Additionally, we will be considering new ideas and input for a proposal to submit as a potential symposium during EB 2014.  

Interviewer: How can members interested in helping the Minority Affairs Committee get involved?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: First of all, we strongly encourage any ASN members interested in minority health and nutrition issues and the development of minority scientists to participate in our activities.  There is absolutely an “open-door” policy for anyone who wants to observe the committee meeting at EB, so that they can better understand the wonderful work that we do.  If you come to EB, please also feel free to speak with me or any member of the committee, particularly at the ASN's MARC Travel Award Poster Session and Networking Breakfast on Tuesday, April 24 from 7:00 to 8:30 a.m. in the San Diego Convention Center, Room 33A.  This event is a networking opportunity that also introduces other members interested in these issues.

I also want to send a very strong message that the MAC is not simply a committee of minorities.  It is for anyone who wants to help advance the professional development of minority scholars and who is invested in doing world-class research that can help understand how to eliminate health and nutrition disparities.

A second way that members can get involved is by directly contacting the minority affairs committee members.  Information about how to contact committee members and more details on the ASN MARC Travel Awards can be found online. Those interested in getting involved may directly email me at rafael.perez-escamilla@yale.edu, or they may contact ASN's staff liaison to the committee, Katrina Dunn, who is wonderful at bringing the needs of the members to our attention.  She can be reached at kld@nutrition.org.

Finally, I would encourage all members to read the Minority Affairs Committee column, which is published quarterly in Nutrition Notes. The column is a great way to stay up to date on the committee's activities every quarter. The most recent issue of Nutrition Notes can be found here

Interviewer: What specific benefits does ASN offer to its minority members, particularly compared to other professional societies?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: I'd like to speak a bit more about the MARC Travel Awards.  Essentially, ASN offers minority students these awards to attend the scientific sessions and annual meeting.  The award is offered in concert with the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at NIH.  We feel that the high-quality experiences offered to postdoctoral and graduate students through this award convince and eventually retain and advance the careers of minority scientists.  There are also several research opportunities targeting minority researchers as well as post-doctoral development and enrichment awards.  I have seen the benefits of these awards first-hand, because one of my former students has received awards from ASN and the MARC programs.  I can tell you that these awards made a very big difference in the opportunities offered to her.  

Interviewer: Why do you feel it is so important to recruit investigators from diverse backgrounds?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: I was recently asked at a nutrition conference in Arizona why I think there is not more research into nutrition issues and disparities in minority communities.  My response to that question was that it is very well known that the ethnic, racial, and cultural composition of institutions directly affect their research priorities, because it is very difficult to be able to identify relevant questions that are going to make a difference within minority communities if you do not have anyone to work with who belongs to those communities.  And unless we have these minority scientists to represent the needs of their communities, it is unlikely that we will be able to conduct that critical mass of research that is needed to address the major nutrition and health disparities both in this country and globally.  

Diversity brings a lot of strength to academic institutions, to their pedagogical mission, and to their recruitment mission.  At the end of the day, it also brings a lot of strength to the quality of the research that can be done to take into account the needs of the most vulnerable groups.  As I said before, this does not mean that you need to be an ethnic minority to conduct research with ethnic minorities.  It simply means that we do not yet have the critical mass of scholars to be able to conduct the research that is needed in the cultural, social, and economic contexts where the most vulnerable populations live.

Interviewer: When did you first hear about ASN, and what made you want to join the organization?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: I originally decided to join ASN in graduate school, because my advisors belonged to ASN and they spoke very highly of the organization.  The ASN environment has always been extremely supportive for me.  I consider it one of the main reasons why I have been relatively successful in my professional career.  It has presented me with so many networking and academic opportunities, which have grown over the years and have been extended to my students as well.  The reason I decided to join and the reason I have decided to stay for over two decades is that there is no doubt in my mind that this is the premier scientific nutrition organization in the world.

Interviewer: How has ASN been helpful to you in your professional career?

Dr. Perez-Escamilla: ASN cares deeply about global nutrition as well as domestic issues, and is widely respected by other nutrition societies throughout the world.   For that reason, it has opened many doors for me in the USA and on an international level.

March 2012