Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Margarita Terán-Garcia, MD, PhD, FTOS
Hispanic Health Programs
Margarita Terán-Garcia, MD, PhD, FTOS, is an extension specialist in Hispanic Health Programs at the University of Illinois Extension and has research assistant professor appointments in the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the Family Resiliency Center, and the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Dr. Terán conducts transdisciplinary research on obesity and other nutrition-related diseases (e.g., diabetes, hypertension) among low-income populations. She works on promoting health and wellness among families of Hispanic-heritage and translates evidence-based science to community-based programs that serve children and families in need.
Tell us more about your research in health equity:
My research focuses on obesity prevention, approaching this enormous task with multiprong tools. First, with a team of collaborators and students, we focus on finding and understanding the multiple geneses of unhealthy fat accumulation, then translating and integrating evidence-based information into community engagement and practical implementation.
In the area of childhood obesity, many inequities, including Social Determinants of Health (SDOH), contribute to decreased quality and years of healthy life in minority populations. I am driven to understand and design effective approaches that combine multiple systems and levels of theoretical and practical work into family-based, community interventions that promote health and wellbeing in underserved population groups. To develop tailored interventions for individuals, families, and communities, we need to appreciate, with cultural humility, that there is much work to do to reach health equity. Major SODH, including loss of employment, low literacy rates, household-income, and access to affordable healthcare in conjunction with a high prevalence of diabetes, dyslipidemia, and hypertension, significantly impact the quality of life, life expectancy, and overall health and wellness, to reach to the full potential of individuals and communities at large.
The current COVID-19 pandemic event is a very crucial moment in my area of work, where we need to be able to intervene timely to prevent the high rates of mortality and morbidity associated with health inequity. Unfortunately, this type of event likely will not be isolated. We must be prepared to apply the lessons learned by research to have an integrated and transdisciplinary approach to develop models for intervention that improve health outcomes in the face of different adversity scenarios. We must identify the best ways to intervene on time with efficiency and sustainability by empowering communities at different levels. Overall, that will improve the culture of health in our area and extend our approach globally.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
Being a part of the Illinois community allows collaborating and connecting efficiently with many faculty members and students across campus. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with University of Illinois Extension, the Division of Nutritional Sciences, the Carle Illinois College of Medicine, the School of Social Work, and many other departments and initiatives across campus. The collaboration with the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (IHSI) adds impact to my work by linking groups with diverse expertise (BERD) and teams of health inequity (Brandi Barnes) to enhance my work. The collaboration with IHSI Community-Academic Scholars has added the opportunity to meet with a diverse group of colleagues to exchange initiatives about the work we do; it has been rewarding not only personally, but professionally as well.
How do you envision your research advancing health equity?
The goal of my multi-function integrated projects is to implement, adapt, and evaluate the effectiveness of a community workshop-based curriculum to prevent childhood obesity and promote healthy nutrition and lifestyle behaviors among low income, low literacy families. Our USDA-NIFA funded project grant Improving the Health of Hispanic Children and Their Families with a Community-Based Curriculum: "Abriendo Caminos" reaches across the U.S., from west-to-east and north-to-south (California, Illinois, Iowa, Puerto Rico, and Texas). This project has resulted in a low-cost obesity prevention intervention available in Spanish and English that can be disseminated by educators and community agency staff across the country. We are working on the tailored adaptations and guidelines to extend our model to other communities. Thus, we developed a pilot project: “The Afro-Centered Abriendo Caminos (ACAC)” to reach African immigrants in our local community. In the long-term, we seek to set up our model to other communities with different needs and cultural backgrounds.
What role does the Champaign-Urbana community play in your research?
The Champaign-Urbana community plays an incredible role in our research and programmatic implementation; we have a very diverse and vibrant community, with 7% of Latinos living in Champaign County. There are also organizations and individuals with a great passion for serving and contributing to decreasing the gap of inequalities. We have had the opportunity to partner with the Champaign Public Health District, Illinois Extension offices, the Multicultural Community Center in Rantoul, local schools, and organizations to understand their needs. We address their needs by working with organizations, and the families in a reliable way, by starting to build that trust, implementing our programs and services at the locations where parents feel safe and secure.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
One of the many success stories we have had in our program, and that is very dear to me, is from a young teenager that participated in our program with his family and was affected severely by weight management problems. It was highly rewarding to see that after the six weeks in the “Abriendo Caminos” program, and by changing the eating behaviors at home (i.e., increasing water and fruit/vegetable consumption, and engaging in regular physical activity), there was a drastic change in his weight status and self-esteem. He lost around 40 pounds, but beyond the weight loss, there were more benefits. He became an excellent example for his siblings and family in demonstrating the impact of changes in health behaviors and quality of life. We need to recognize that change is difficult; even “baby steps” are challenging to adapt in families that are affected by the realities of health inequity. It is wonderful to see that in the long-term, the “Abriendo Caminos” intervention facilitated a compelling impact on the health of this family and other members of our community.