Every year from September 15th through October 15th, our nation celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM), and this year’s theme is "Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation,” designated by The National Council of Hispanic Employment Program Managers (NCHEPM). We embrace this message with our own twist: “Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger NINDS!”
During this period, our Institute celebrates the history and culture of our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X colleagues, who are descendants or originally from North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, Portugal, and/or Spain. As with other races and ethnicities, the Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X community consists of people from a wide spectrum of human diversity, including varied geographic backgrounds, races, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, and physical ability. Many have demonstrated resilience through the years, when faced with challenges driven by racism, discrimination and socioeconomic disadvantage. NINDS’s mission is to reduce the suffering due to neurologic disorders and stroke in all people, and this requires careful consideration of the NeuroHealth needs in all of these culturally diverse communities.
NINDS realizes that the health of our research effort depends upon harnessing the talent and scientific passion from all segments of our country. Many Latin Americans left their loved ones in their home countries to pursue their passion for higher education and greater opportunities However, relative to the United States population, Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X scientists are a highly underrepresented group among the NIH staff and among NIH grant recipients. Yet, tremendous scientific contributions have come from Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X scientists, many of whom are also involved in diversity-related programs as part of a broad NINDS strategy to build a more diverse neuroscience workforce. A few, who are members of our special programs, include:
- Dr. Maria Castro, Ph.D., University of Michigan: A Javits award recipient, Dr. Castro leads research that focuses on epigenetic regulation of cancer progression, uncovering the role of oncometabolites in the brain tumor microenvironment (TME), and developing therapies for adult and pediatric gliomas. Her program aims to develop novel treatments for brain tumors based on immunotherapeutics, an exciting approach that targets inhibition of tumor growth and recurrence. She has also received NINDS research supplements to train underrepresented individuals and enhance the diversity of the research workforce.
- Dr. José E. García-Arrarás, Ph.D., University of Puerto Rico: Dr. García’s laboratory studies regenerative biology using the sea cucumber as a model system, and has made advances in deciphering mechanisms in both intestinal and nervous system regeneration. He is a PI for the Blueprint ENDURE (Enhancing Neuroscience Diversity through Undergraduate Research Education Experiences) Initiative, which aims to raise interest and opportunities in neuroscience research for individuals who are typically underrepresented in the field.
- Dr. Monica Perez, Ph.D., Shirley Ryan AbilityLab: An R35 recipient, Dr. Perez leads a research program that has focused on understanding transmission in descending motor pathways and spinal cord networks during motor behaviors in humans with and without spinal cord injury (SCI), with the long-term goal of maximizing the activity of spared pathway connections to enhance recovery potential.
- Dr. Joann Trejo, Ph.D., M.B.A., University of California, San Diego: Dr. Trejo is known for her discoveries of how cellular responses are regulated by G protein-coupled receptors in the context of vascular inflammation and cancer. She is a PI for the San Diego Leading the Advancement of Underrepresented Neuroscientists for Change (LAUNCH) program, which is supported by the R25 NIH Neuroscience Development for Advancing the Careers of a Diverse Research Workforce. Dr. Trejo is also PI for an award through the NIH Common Fund’s Faculty Institutional Recruitment for Sustainable Transformation (FIRST) program, which aims to enhance and maintain cultures of inclusive excellence in the biomedical research community.
As we pursue research to understand the special factors that contribute to disparities and inequities in neurological disorders, we are fortunate to have the NINDS Office of Global Health and Health Disparities (OGHHD). Last year, they hosted the Health Disparities and Inequities in Neurological Disorders (HEADWAY) Workshop, with an overarching goal of identifying evidence-based interventions that are feasible and widely scalable.
Additionally, as part of the NINDS health equity strategic planning, a group of subject matter experts reviewed the impact of social determinants of health (SDOH) on neurological disease and interventions and identified key research gaps and opportunities to either prevent the risk of neurologic disease or alter outcomes of neurologic disease. They found that Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X communities are disproportionately impacted with disease burden attributed to healthcare-related disparities, including lack of access to care, having no health insurance or being underinsured, lack of referrals, absence of trained translators, socioeconomic status, and educational level. To better understand the relationship between early life SDOH and the development of cognitive impairment and dementia, NINDS is supporting a funding opportunity that leverages existing data sources to drive new discoveries, especially in populations experiencing health disparities.
In February 2022, a working group of the National Advisory Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NANDS) Council, including Drs. Lilyana Amezcua and Susana Ramirez, delivered recommendations to NINDS leadership, highlighting priorities and opportunities to address disparities and inequities in neurological research and care/services, including those relevant to the Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X community.
At NINDS, we recognize the dedication, groundbreaking work, and inspiring career paths of our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X staff and grantees who bring us closer to our mission and values. We acknowledge that we have more work to do in ensuring that our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X workforce representation at NIH is reflective of the general population. We remain committed to increasing representation from these communities, as well as ensuring inclusivity and growth opportunities for our colleagues already working at the Institute. To promote these efforts in the extramural space, we are fortunate to have the NINDS Office of Programs to Enhance Workforce Diversity (OPEN), led by Michelle Jones-London, Ph.D. The office has established various strategies to build a more diverse neuroscience workforce, including the recent R01 funding opportunity for "New Investigators" and "At-Risk Investigators" from diverse backgrounds, including those from groups underrepresented in the health-related sciences (e.g., see NOT-OD-20-031, Notice of NIH’s Interest in Diversity), in order to enhance the diversity of R01-funded investigators.
As I reflect on the Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X members of our community, I am grateful for their roles at NINDS and their commitment to the neuroscience field. Importantly, and at a difficult time for many communities in our country, our NINDS colleagues formed an Employee Resource Group, “Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X Ambassadors and Allies to NINDS,” or “HOLA NINDS,” to bring forward the perspectives of our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X employees and their allies. They are an integral part of NINDS, and the broader Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X community at NIH, actively supporting and participating in multiple working groups and committees. We have invited their ideas and incorporated them into important initiatives, including in development of the Racial and Ethnic Equity Plan (REEP) for NINDS, part of a broader NIH effort to identify and provide a framework to dismantle any racial and ethnic disparities and enhance the diversity of its workforce.
We invite you to celebrate our Hispanic/Latin/a/o/e/X workforce not just during this month’s observance, but beyond this time of year. Below, we highlight our HOLA NINDS Executive Committee and their contributions to neuroscience research and furthering our Institute’s mission:
- Victoria Bitzer-Wales has over sixteen years of experience in strategic and integrated communications, primarily in public health social marketing for behavior change. At NINDS’ Office of Neuroscience Communications and Engagement, she oversees the Institute’s digital information strategy and web modernization efforts. Ms. Wales leads efforts to provide a seamless flow of information online on research advances and initiatives to our various stakeholders including scientific and academic communities, as well as policymakers, patients, and the public. She is passionate about DEIA efforts and serves on various committees and working groups at NIH including groups that focus on Spanish language communication efforts.
- Dr. Carlos Faraco is a Program Director in DCR. He currently serves as the Data and Safety Monitoring Board Liaison (DSMB) for both StrokeNet and EPPIC-Net and covers a total of nine clinical trials. This year, along with the assistance of Dr. Lina Garcia, a clinical coordinator and physician in DCR, he assembled a second DSMB to handle the increasing number of trials sponsored by StrokeNet. Dr. Faraco is also involved in various NINDS initiatives for Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias, and he recently led planning efforts for a workshop on “Imaging the Future of In vivo Neuropathological Diagnosis through Postmortem Analyses.” Dr. Faraco also coordinates NINDS’s internal “Is This a Clinical Trial” (ITACT) Committee, which fields clinical trial related questions from across NINDS’s Extramural Divisions.
- Dr. Silvina Horovitz, a staff scientist in the NINDS Intramural Research Program, brings over twenty years of experience in neuroimaging, in particular, the integration of magnetic resonance techniques with other experimental methods such as electrophysiology, behavior, genetics, and clinical data. Her research has focused on understanding neuronal underpinnings of movement disorders and identifying biomarkers of disease progression, expanding into sleep, Tourette’s Syndrome, Parkinson’s Disease, cerebellar ataxia, dystonias, and functional movement disorders.
- Dr. Carolina Mendoza-Puccini is a Program Director in the Division of Clinical Research (DCR) and the Program Officer for Strategies to Innovate Emergency Care Clinical Trials Network (SIREN). Her principal projects include managing the NINDS Common Data Elements which provides guidance and tools for neuroscientists on data collection best practices for over 20 disease areas. She works across NIH on different CDE projects and chairs the NIH CDE Governance Committee. Dr. Mendoza-Puccini, who is passionate about health equity, works on projects that address SDOH and advocates for people with limited English proficiency in clinical research.
As we celebrate our colleagues for their tireless efforts in advancing our values as an Institute, we must also acknowledge the recent devastation of Hurricane Fiona on our supported scientists in Puerto Rico. My heart goes out to all of you who have been affected by this natural disaster, not only the people and animals in the programs that we support, but also the overall health of the biomedical enterprise. I encourage impacted individuals to learn about our response to natural disasters and other emergencies.
I'd also invite you to take an opportunity to review and spend time on NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion dedicated page to this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month’s theme.