NMSU researcher Rebecca Palacios seeks answers
to improve the health of border communities.
by Karen Ray
Rebecca Palacios is passionate about community involvement. Her road to the merger of academic excellence and community service began when she participated in a National Institutes of Health-funded program called MARC (Minority Access to Research Careers), which introduces minority students to medical research. A first-generation Mexican-American, second to youngest in a family of eight children, Palacios has been interested in science from a young age. Her family has a history of cardiovascular disease, and during her subsequent PhD work she began focusing her own research on Hispanics, using her insight into the Hispanic population.
"I am happy that academics can go out into the community," Palacios says. "My goal is to serve my border community where I grew up and to involve students."
Palacios earned a doctorate in health psychology from the University of Texas at El Paso. She initially developed a strong lab orientation while working for eight years with the privately owned Border Research Company, before coming to New Mexico State University nearly five years ago. It was her work with Border, where she served as director of research, that led to her interest in the health-education research community. There she was involved in health program evaluations and focused on HIV and AIDS education and teen pregnancy prevention in addition to other projects.
In 2012, the Con Alma Health Foundation named Palacios one of the year's health heroes. "Every year we receive nominations about amazing individuals who make extraordinary contributions to the health of their communities," says Dolores E. Roybal, Con Alma's executive director. "Rebecca embodies the goals of Con Alma–creating sustainable solutions to improve the health of underserved populations."
Palacios has been invited to participate in a variety of research projects and has a drive for working out in the community. She says, "To really get out there and understand the problems, to see them as they are occurring, as the population is experiencing them, is fascinating. If you don't understand the target population you're not going to be effective."
She adds, "My passion has been the US-Mexico border population. I have worked in El Paso and Southern New Mexico for several years now and those communities are very dear to me because they are also my hometown."
Palacios says she really felt like she made a difference with two particular projects that "really helped me to grow as a researcher. I learned that I could do many things even if I wasn't fully acquainted with those fields. The basic research skills that I had applied to a wide variety of issues. That was really exciting."
One was a diabetes surveillance research project conducted by the Pan American Health Organization. Palacios says this was an exciting study involving a huge team tasked with interviewing people at home and doing health assessments. If the people were at risk, researchers would let them know and refer them for further help. "We found that a significant portion of the population did not know they were diabetic and so they were referred for healthcare. That was a very exciting study."
The second study involved examining groundwater contamination issues related to the fertilizer industry near Vado and Mesquite, two colonias in Doña Ana County. "That was another very immense project. We had to look at several sources of information to see what the level of contamination in these areas was."
This study was initiated by the Office of Border Health because of residents' complaints and fears that they were getting sick from fertilizer contamination. The research team looked into two major companies as well as examining the extensive contamination issues resulting from nitrates coming from the dairies.
Palacios explains, "The Environmental Department does not have the resources to monitor regularly. At the time of this study (2005), there were only two people available, who would have had to come from Albuquerque to investigate the situation down here." The different environmental departments would get information and investigate, she says, but the information was not shared between departments. So her research group worked on getting them to communicate and share information.
"Eventually there was a big fine to pay and action to correct the violations," Palacios says. "I felt like these two projects really made a huge difference."
Her current research project involves looking at the colonias' populations and residents who don't have access to public water. She says, "I am excited to get involved in community-level research again here at NMSU."
The three-year collaborative venture between UTEP and NMSU is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. Researchers are looking at households in both Doña Ana County and El Paso. In Doña Ana County alone there are 35 colonias, according to government documents.
"There are two types of populations," explains Palacios, "One relies on hauled water; they haul water to their house and store it in large black tanks. That's how things are in El Paso."
When people in those colonias store their water in tanks, Palacios notes that they might haul water every six months, depending on the size of the family. "These are huge black tanks and the inside begins to rust and deteriorate, so you have all kinds of particles in the water and bacteria and algae forming. They use this for bathing. Everybody knows it's not safe to drink the water. Very few people drink the water from these or the shallow wells; they purchase water for drinking and cooking."
The particulates in the foul-smelling stored water also destroy household appliances such as air conditioners and refrigerators. Although the researchers have yet to assess the degree of contamination within the water, the reports from community members lead them to suspect it is significant.
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