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Creating a Healthier Country

Gregory Talavera and Guadalupe X. Ayala are the new co-directors of SDSU’s Institute for Behavioral and Community Health.
As part of the many projects currently underway at IBACH, researchers are identifying effective strategies for promoting physical activity, healthy eating, oral health, and managing chronic diseases.
As part of the many projects currently underway at IBACH, researchers are identifying effective strategies for promoting physical activity, healthy eating, oral health, and managing chronic diseases.
In an unremarkable office building just a few miles from the San Diego State University campus, more than 100 faculty, staff and students are working toward a remarkable common goal.

They are part of SDSU’s Institute for Behavioral and Community Health (IBACH), which turned 30 this year.

The institute is larger, more ambitious and better funded than it was in 1983, but IBACH’s work has never deviated from its founding mission—to amass a thick portfolio of high quality research related to chronic disease and health behavior in the Latino community.

From students to faculty

This fall, IBACH’s leadership changed hands when Gregory Talavera and Guadalupe X. “Suchi” Ayala, both professors in SDSU’s Graduate School of Public Health, succeeded long-time director and Distinguished Professor of public health, John Elder.

Talavera and Ayala are former students of Elder’s, drawn back to SDSU by its unrivalled commitment to empowering the Latino community to take responsibility for its long-term health.

“We are building an infrastructure and an environment that will be sustainable without us,” said Talavera.

Collaborative approach

IBACH began life as the Center for Behavioral Medicine during the early days of SDSU’s evolution from a teaching institution to a research-oriented university.

SDSU psychology professor Robert Kaplan, who had received funding for chronic disease research, combined forces with other funded researchers working on health issues. Elder joined a year later, eventually becoming co-director and establishing three precedents.

“First, our research would be in and with the community with a concurrent emphasis on high quality science,” Elder said. “Second, much of our work would focus on the expanding Latino community, on which very little health research existed. Finally, our approach would be multidisciplinary in nature, reaching through traditional academic silos to represent psychology, medicine, public health, statistics and eventually other perspectives.”

Today the list has expanded to include sociology, communication, marketing and exercise and nutritional sciences, and IBACH is a model for the type of collaborative, interdisciplinary research being fostered across the university as part of SDSU’s strategic plan, Building on Excellence.

“Each new faculty member brings in new collaborations, ensuring that IBACH is a blend of rigorous science with real relevance to the community,” said Ayala.

Healthy behaviors

As a group, IBACH researchers are supported by $11 million in funding by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Cancer Society and several others.

The institute’s projects include both observational and intervention research, the former helping to identify the causes of disease and the latter helping to identify effective strategies for preventing disease. As part of the many projects currently underway at IBACH, researchers are identifying effective strategies for promoting physical activity, healthy eating, oral health, and managing chronic diseases such as diabetes and asthma.

Examples of success

IBACH’s interactions with the San Diego and Imperial County communities, through dozens of research studies, has a powerful influence on Latino youth.  In addition to raising awareness of healthy behaviors, the institute’s researchers, particularly co-directors Ayala and Talavera, serve as models of success for SDSU's young Latino students and those aspiring to higher education and research careers.

Ayala earned a master's degree in experimental psychology from CSU San Marcos, a master’s degree in public health from SDSU and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the SDSU-UCSD joint doctoral program. Returning to SDSU as a faculty member in 2002, she saw opportunities to build on IBACH’s research in obesity and healthy eating.

She currently directs four funded intervention studies and one epidemiological study, including the multi-site Childhood Obesity Research Demonstration study which aims to identify multi-level, multi-sector approaches for preventing and controlling childhood obesity. SDSU’s partners in this study are the University of Texas Health Sciences Center, the University of Texas at Houston and the Massachusetts Health Department in partnership with Harvard University’s School of Public Health.

Talavera was a physician in residency when he enrolled at SDSU for a master’s degree in public health. He is a consultant to the San Ysidro Health Center and principal investigator for three funded programs including the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL), the largest epidemiological study ever undertaken to determine the role of acculturation in the prevalence and development of disease and to identify factors that play a protective or harmful role in Hispanic/Latino health.

HCHS/SOL researchers have obtained health-related information from 16,000 Latino individuals of diverse backgrounds—Cubans in Miami, Puerto Ricans in New York, South Americans in Chicago and Mexican Americans in San Diego. SDSU’s partners in the study are Northwestern University, University of Miami and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
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