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Prestigious Fellowship Furthers Grad Student’s Asthma Research

November 9, 2017
A man in a blue button-down shirt stands on a balcony in front of a concrete wall.
Public health graduate student Emanuel Alcala.

Very few people will admit to an abiding love of statistics. But Emanuel Alcala, a second-year public health doctoral student, believes statistics are key to solving many of the San Joaquin Valley’s public health challenges.

“I grew fond of statistics when I started working at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute,” Alcala said. “I saw firsthand how statistics could impact people.”

Alcala spent three years as a research analyst at the CVHPI. It was there that he developed a passion for public health, finding himself drawn to the statistical tools in the public health researcher’s arsenal. He was recently named UC Merced’s first ever Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar, one of only 40 students nationwide admitted into this year’s class.

But public health wasn’t always on Alcala’s radar. The Kerman native attended Fresno State University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in experimental psychology. Though he wasn’t sure where he’d ultimately end up, he was certain of one thing.

“I’ve always wanted to be a professor and independent researcher at a university,” Alcala said. “It’s what I always envisioned for myself.”

That meant pursuing a doctoral degree. With his newfound passion for public health and an eye towards helping the Central Valley’s most vulnerable communities, Alcala enrolled in UC Merced’s new public health Ph.D. program, which trains researchers to address the Valley’s endemic health challenges.

I want to use this fellowship to improve how I can disseminate information to communicate with the public and decision makers.

Emanuel Alcala
Public Health Graduate Student

Advised by public health professor and HSRI affiliate Ricardo Cisneros, Alcala employs statistical methods and large datasets to identify factors that contribute to pediatric asthma hospitalizations in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We’re finding social indicators are more strongly associated with hospitalizations than environmental indicators,” Alcala said.

These findings suggest that socioeconomic status, racial and ethnic identity, and access to healthcare are stronger predictors of asthma-related hospitalizations than air or water pollution. The results surprised Alcala, but he also believes his research has the potential to engender meaningful change.

“Asthma rates change from county to county, and can be explained by genetics and geography,” Alcala said. “My perspective is that biology is not modifiable, but social circumstances are. It’s a potential area where policy can be changed to impact populations.”

The Robert Wood Johnson fellowship provides Alcala a $30,000 annual stipend, opportunities to participate in professional development and networking events, and mentoring to help him complete his dissertation. 

“Emanuel’s receipt of this fellowship is an example of the excellence our graduate students and faculty are bringing to campus,” said Nancy Burke, professor and chair of public health at UC Merced. “We are very excited for him.”

The fellowship will enable Alcala to pursue an ambitious research agenda, which he hopes will inform policy decisions and ultimately improve health outcomes in the Central Valley.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sets out to ensure research impacts policy,” Alcala said. “I want to use this fellowship to improve how I can disseminate information to communicate with the public and decision makers.”