UTEP College of Health Sciences Attracts Top Research Faculty
Last Updated on April 20, 2020 at 12:00 AM
Originally published April 20, 2020
By Laura L. Acosta
The University of Texas at El Paso’s R1 designation by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education has raised UTEP’s national research profile and attracted highly competitive research faculty to the University. These faculty engage in meaningful academic exploration to enhance the quality of life in the Paso del Norte region and beyond.
UTEP’s status as a top tier research university has also bolstered the College of Health Sciences’ successful efforts to recruit 10 new top-notch research faculty whose expertise is helping to identify solutions to critical health challenges in public health, kinesiology, rehabilitation sciences and Hispanic health disparities.
They include rehabilitation sciences faculty Anita Bialunska, Ph.D.; Beatrice Lee, Mei-Ling Lin, Ph.D.; William Roberts, Ph.D.; and Gregory Schober, Ph.D., in rehabilitation sciences; Jeffrey Eggleston, Ph.D., Kisuk Min, Ph.D., and Cory Smith, Ph.D. in kinesiology; Bruce Friedman, Ph.D., in social work; and Julia Lechuga, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, who was awarded a prestigious policy fellowship with The Network: Towards Unity for Health in February 2020.
“We find ourselves in an enviable position of being able to recruit top talent to UTEP,” said College of Health Sciences Dean Shafik Dharamsi, Ph.D., who has led the college since 2017. The college’s research expenditures topped $5.2 million in 2019 compared with $3.3 million in 2016.
“Our recent designation as a top tier doctoral university with very high research activity enables us to attract some of the best and brightest students, staff and faculty nationwide,” he said.
Enhancing Public Health
The opportunity to join UTEP’s public health sciences department and contribute to the well-being of vulnerable populations in the binational community she grew up in is what lured Julia Lechuga back to El Paso in 2019.
Dharamsi also encouraged the El Paso native to return to UTEP after meeting her at a global health conference at Yale University in April 2018.
After obtaining a doctoral degree in psychology from UTEP, Lechuga left to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, which sparked her interest in public health. She returned to UTEP in 2013 as an assistant professor in psychology and was recognized by the University for her outstanding performance in securing extramural funding a year later.
In 2016, Lechuga accepted an applied research position at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. But before she left, Lechuga received a five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to implement a community-based HIV risk reduction intervention for individuals with drug use disorder in El Paso and Juárez, Mexico.
Now in its final year, Lechuga’s program has directly impacted 3,500 people on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“We try to make resources available, testing available, especially for HIV, so that when individuals are ready to get sober, they will not have other health conditions that can be very detrimental to their lives, like HIV,” said Lechuga, who conducted a similar intervention with her mentor in El Salvador between 2010 and 2015.
Working with the Alliance of Border Collaboratives in El Paso and Programa Compañeros in Juárez, Lechuga’s intervention provides HIV testing to people who inject heroin or crack and engage in risky behaviors such as sharing needles or having unprotected sex. The program also organized educational activities, including a three-day skill building psychoeducational workshop, in which participants learned how to clean syringes, navigate condom use, and other skills to reduce the harm of their drug use.
Lechuga recruited three UTEP undergraduate students to help with HIV testing, survey administration and data collection.
“This is my community, and substance use is a real issue that doesn’t get the same attention as other chronic diseases,” said Lechuga, who also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from UTEP. “This issue has affected my community in a very real way, and UTEP was the perfect setting for me to contribute my knowledge and experience to better the health of my community.”
Making a Difference
Dharamsi said the college’s new faculty members, such as Lechuga and Kisuk Min, come from high impact, top-tier universities and bring with them a strong work ethic and a deep desire to make a significant difference in this region through their research, teaching and service activities.
UTEP’s R1 designation and supportive kinesiology faculty presented Min with the ideal environment to continue his research in exercise physiology after he completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University’s School of Medicine.
In the college’s Metabolic, Nutrition and Exercise Research (MiNER) Laboratory, Min, an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology since September 2019, has been investigating the effects of exercise on both cardiac and skeletal muscle physiology with undergraduate students.
Min’s research goal is to improve understanding of the mechanisms that protect cardiac and skeletal muscle against myopathy, a disease of the muscle that results in muscular weakness and dysfunction. Myopathy occurs in all age groups and causes serious physical dysfunction and disability. Although various causes of myopathy have been identified, the mechanisms triggering myopathy in cardiac and skeletal muscle still remain unclear. He is specifically interested in the mechanisms of exercise on cardiac and skeletal muscle function following injury and disease using mouse and cell culture models.
“Given my background as a clinical exercise physiologist, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and a research scientist at Yale University in the field of exercise physiology, I believe that I can make a positive contribution to the department and UTEP,” said Min, a native of Seoul, South Korea, who holds a doctoral degree in exercise physiology from the University of Florida. “Also, my family and I love to live in Texas.”
UTEP’s distinction as a community-engaged university is what attracted Beatrice Lee to join the college’s Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in fall 2020.
The college’s emphasis on community engagement has created opportunities for faculty such as Lee, and health sciences students to participate in applied and translational research that will benefit the community and contribute to UTEP’s mission to improve the quality of life in the region.
“We are a community-centric, mission driven university, and we have a long history of research that focuses on the challenges that our communities face,” Dharamsi said. “We are also among the top U.S. universities for student upward mobility, providing outstanding education at an affordable tuition. What more could you ask for? This is really a great time to be at UTEP!”
Lee, who will graduate from the Rehabilitation Counselor Education Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in August, is looking forward to engaging in interdisciplinary research that can help reduce physical and mental health disparities in the community.
“I really hope through my research I’m able to explore protective factors that can buffer the negative effects of stress and facilitate interventions that may better help people with multiple sclerosis manage their stress,” said Lee, who has authored or co-authored six peer-reviewed articles in 2020.
The National Council on Rehabilitation Education honored Lee with the Rehabilitation Doctoral Student of the Year Award for her outstanding research, service, leadership, and advocacy contributions in rehabilitation and with individuals with disabilities. She is also the winner of the American Rehabilitation Counseling Association’s 2019-2020 Doctoral Student Research Proposal Competition.
“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be able to work with different faculty in the College of Health Sciences and help people in the community improve their lives,” Lee said.
The College of Health Sciences has recently recruited 10 highly competitive research faculty with the talent to produce high-quality research in public health, kinesiology, rehabilitation sciences and health disparities. They include:
Anita Bialunska, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in rehabilitation sciences.
Research interests: Cognitive and motor impairments after brain injury, timing processes in motor disorders, and neurodegenerative effects in Latinos/Hispanics.
Beatrice Lee will join the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences in fall 2020.
Research interests: Protective factors that can buffer the negative effects of stress in people with disabilities.
Mei-Ling Lin, Ph.D., assistant professor in rehabilitation sciences
Research interests: Mental health in school-aged children, and 3D printing in rehabilitation sciences.
William Roberts, Ph.D., assistant professor in occupational therapy
Research interests: How occupational therapy (OT) education integrates local culture and context into curricula, particularly in places where there are fewer resources, and where OT is an emerging profession.
Gregory Schober, Ph.D., assistant professor in rehabilitation sciences
Research interests: health policy, political and civic behavior, and global health politics.
Jeffrey Eggleston, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology
Research interests: Lower extremity function during locomotor activities in individuals with chronic disorders and diseases, specifically autism spectrum disorders.
Kisuk Min, Ph.D., assistant professor in kinesiology
Research interest: To improve understanding of the mechanisms that protect cardiac and skeletal muscle against myopathy, a disease of the muscle that results in muscular weakness and dysfunction.
Cory Smith, Ph.D., assistant professor in kinesiology
Research interests: Strength and conditioning, electromechanical delay, mechanisms of fatigue, and prosthetic control.
Bruce Friedman, Ph.D., will serve as chair of the Department of Social Work starting in fall 2020.
He previously discussed his research during a presentation titled “Community-Based Participatory Research: Integrating Research and Practice for Social Change” at UTEP during the 2019 spring semester.
Julia Lechuga, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences
Research interests: Cultural, contextual and familial factors that influence the risk of infectious disease and adoption of preventive sexual and reproductive health behaviors.