Students to Present Behavioral Medicine Research

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP News Service

Teresa M. Anchondo, a student in the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences (IHS) Ph.D. program at The University of Texas at El Paso, has spent the last four years mapping out “food deserts” in El Paso County.

A food desert is a geographic area where mainstream supermarkets are either absent or inaccessible to low-income shoppers, which can contribute to health risk factors such as obesity by depriving residents of healthy food including fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and fish. Students in UTEP’s Master of Public Health and Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. programs meet once a week with their adviser, Joe Tomaka, Ph.D., to practice their conference presentations, thesis proposals and dissertation defenses. Back row, from left:  Holly Mata, Ximena Burgos, Lizeth Cardoza, Joe Tomaka, Stormy Morales-Monks, Rena DiGregorio, Teresa Anchondo, and Angelee Shamaley. Sitting are Amber Bridges-Arzaga, Lydia Garcia, Kristen Hernandez, and Luisa Garcia. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceStudents in UTEP’s Master of Public Health and Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Ph.D. programs meet once a week with their adviser, Joe Tomaka, Ph.D., to practice their conference presentations, thesis proposals and dissertation defenses. Back row, from left: Holly Mata, Ximena Burgos, Lizeth Cardoza, Joe Tomaka, Stormy Morales-Monks, Rena DiGregorio, Teresa Anchondo, and Angelee Shamaley. Sitting are Amber Bridges-Arzaga, Lydia Garcia, Kristen Hernandez, and Luisa Garcia. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

Using geographic information system (GIS) software, Anchondo mapped out a census block of 4,000 people to see if the availability of supermarkets varied by socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity in neighborhoods, and if fewer supermarkets were located in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods.

The results were unexpected. Anchondo will present those results in March at the 34th Annual Meeting & Scientific Sessions of the Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) in San Francisco, along with one faculty member and six other students from the Master of Public Health (MPH) and IHS programs in UTEP’s College of Health Sciences.

“We found that the higher the income level, the fewer the supermarkets,” said Anchondo, who received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP in 2005 and 2010.

According to Anchondo’s adviser Joe Tomaka, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, supermarkets in big cities tend to move out of deprived areas and relocate in more affluent communities, but that’s not the case in El Paso.

“Typically the idea is that grocery stores in highly-deprived poor neighborhoods are hard to find because people move out and into other communities,” said Tomaka, a UTEP faculty member since 1995. “We think it’s a cultural thing that the grocery stores that tailor to the Mexican-American population tend to thrive in the poor neighborhoods. There are more of them in the areas that are actually relatively worse off in terms of financial income and socioeconomic factors.”

Anchondo’s study, "Neighborhood Deprivation and the Retail Food Environment in a U.S.-Mexico Border Urban Area" will be recognized as a Meritorious Student Abstract during the SBM conference.

In addition to Anchondo, Tomaka and students Anabel Cardial, Kristen Hernandez, Stormy Monks, Gigi Shamaley, Adriana Rascon and Rena DiGregorio will present their research studies that look at how lifestyle and environmental factors influence health and well-being.

Anchondo and Hernandez, an MPH student, will give an 18-minute presentation on their research. It will be the first time Anchondo speaks at a national conference.    

“I’m in for a big shock because I think it’s going to be totally different,” Anchondo said. “With a poster presentation, it is less formal and if people have questions, they come right up to you.”

Hernandez spoke at the SBM conference in 2011.

At the 2013 conference, she will discuss her study on college students who participated in an alcohol risk reduction program.

The study assessed the extent to which self-reported drinking behavior correlates with the tendency to respond in a socially desirable way using a sample of college students, Hernandez said. She found that researchers may need to take into account social desirability bias in research and when implementing alcohol interventions in college student populations.

For Hernandez, presenting her findings at the SBM conference is a great opportunity to share her research and also get feedback from the audience.

“It’s a great learning experience,” Hernandez said. “I am able to communicate with other researchers and practitioners from diverse disciplines who are committed to improving public health.”

After presenting at four SBM conferences, Monks, a Ph.D. candidate, no longer gets nervous.

At last year’s conference, she presented her research on her dissertation, which looked at alcohol use and its relationship to post-traumatic stress disorder and depression in more than 700 firefighters. In March, she will discuss alcohol interventions for firefighters and their effectiveness. 

Monks said presenting at conferences is a great way for researchers to get their information out while they’re still doing the research and before they’re ready to submit it to journals for publication.

Unlike Monks, this is the first time that Cardiel will present at a conference. Her poster presentation is on post-traumatic stress disorder and its effect on alcohol use by firefighters. She will also present drinking motives and coping strategies used by firefighters with PTSD symptoms.

“I’m getting the opportunity to meet other researchers and establish contacts that may be helpful resources at a future stage of my career,” Cardiel said.

Tomaka’s advice to all of his students – presenting for the first or the fourth time – is to practice.

He leads a weekly research group meeting where students can practice their conference presentations, thesis proposals or dissertation defenses and receive feedback on what they are doing right and how they can improve. 

“One of the wonderful things about having a very active and engaged mentor is that I can honestly say I never felt high and dry,” Monks said about Tomaka. “He’s meeting with us weekly or biweekly depending on what kind of project you’re doing and then all of his students get together weekly and collaborate on projects and offer our suggestions to each other.”

Tomaka’s students appreciate him so much that they’ve nominated him for the conferences’ Distinguished Mentor Award. The winner will be announced in 2013.

While the expectation is for the research to be published, for Tomaka it comes down to making a difference in people’s lives and in their communities.

He remembers one of the participants in an alcohol intervention project telling him that a week after he answered questions about his drinking, he checked himself into rehab.

“When you do intervention research like we do, you don’t see that very often because we’re collecting data and you don’t see that personal side,” Tomaka said. “We hope that we’re having that kind of impact on people.”