By Anna María Nápoles, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Division of Intramural Research
National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities
I recently did an interview for NIH’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, to help celebrate Women’s History Month. I spoke about how mentoring and networking can help diversify science, my work as the scientific director of the Division of Intramural Research at NIMHD, and the importance of diversity in science. I also shared my personal experience, because it led me to the research that I do. It was my own family’s experiences that taught me the importance of research on health disparities.
My parents were both immigrants from rural villages in Jalisco, Mexico. My father worked two jobs that were very hard on his body, but he made sure that my two siblings and I had the benefit of an excellent education. Although he had little formal education, my father worked to better himself and was involved in politics and social volunteerism in our community. This had a lasting impact on me.
My family did not have much money, which meant we had limited access to preventive care. Immunizations were out of the question, which meant that I was often sick as a child. I also served as the interpreter for my mom during medical visits. These experiences made it clear to me that language and economic and cultural factors have a significant impact on your health and your ability to access healthcare.
Today, my research focuses on people who have not typically felt a great sense of control in society over their own future and their health. My goal is to give them tools to manage their chronic diseases and the healthcare system.
For example, I tested and developed an evidence-based intervention that focuses on stress management for rural and urban Spanish-speaking Latinas with breast cancer. These women have very high stress levels, and that leads to high rates of problems like anxiety and depression. It’s important to reach people who don’t have access to services because of a language barrier or other problems.
At NIMHD, I hope to grow a program that focuses on identifying how social adversity affects our health. I want to help the people who experience that adversity and feel like they can’t escape it, by developing treatments and preventive measures that lessen the effects of difficult social circumstances.
The best advice I’ve ever received, as a woman and a minority and a person, was to create a narrative for myself. Who are you, what type of person are you, and what do you bring to the table? I used to have imposter syndrome. I felt like I wasn’t good enough to be a scientist or to survive in a prestigious academic medical institution. I tried to fly under the radar and avoided putting my research out there. We’re socialized, as women, not to put ourselves first and, culturally, I was socialized to be humble.
So, I had to write myself a new narrative: I realized that I can handle setbacks, that I’m a confident person, that I do good science, and that I can help improve the health of minority populations. I had to learn to advertise who I am, my strengths, what I bring to a situation, and how I can make the situation better. I’ve had setbacks, blatant racism and discrimination, financial problems, and stressful situations that made work-life balance difficult. But I persisted.
Our backgrounds are reflected in the kind of work we do. There’s a lot of evidence that shows that diversity improves science, and that diversity leads to ground-breaking discoveries that might not have happened otherwise.
It’s so important to find your strengths and create that narrative for yourself. Recognize what unique qualities you bring to the table and what unique contributions you can make. I guarantee that your history will bring you to ideas and questions that no one else could have thought of.