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
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
Interviewer: Could you start
by telling us a bit about your work with the Minority Affairs
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
Interviewer: What is the
committee currently working on that you would like members to know
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
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
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
ASN MARC Travel Awards can be found online. Those interested in
getting involved may directly email me at firstname.lastname@example.org,
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 email@example.com.
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
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
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.