The Dentist Who Became an Epidemiologist

Head shot photo of Professor Luisa BorrellProfessor Luisa Borrell (GC, Social Welfare / School of Public Health, Epidemiology and Biostatistics) was a dentist before becoming an epidemiologist. She spoke with The Graduate Center about her unusual background and her wide-ranging research on everything from obesity to DNA.
Graduate Center: Describe your path to CUNY.
Dr. Borrell: I’m from the Dominican Republic. I started off as a dentist. I received my dental degree (D.D.S.) and a master’s in public health (M.P.H.) from Columbia University. I practiced for a year in New York City and quickly realized this was not my calling. Then I earned my Ph.D. in Epidemiology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, minoring in statistics. I’m one of the few dentists in the U.S. with a Ph.D. in Epidemiology! I spent the first few years of my academic career at Columbia University, Mailman School of Public Health. I joined CUNY through Lehman College. I spent eight years there. I’ve been at the (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health for the past two years. I teach epidemiological methods and work with graduate students.

GC: What does your research focus on?

Dr. Borrell: My research focuses on the social determinants of health: race, ethnicity, socioeconomic position, neighborhood effects. In addition, I have examined heterogeneity within the Hispanic population and how issues around race/ethnicity, country of origin, and nativity status affect the health of this population.
GC: You are the senior author of the first genome-wide association study of telomere length in African-American youth, recently published in Scientific Reports. (Telomeres, which shorten with age, protect genetic information when DNA replicates and also coat chromosome tips to keep them from sticking together.) What is the significance of this research?

Dr. Borrell: In this study, evidence suggests that telomeres in African-Americans exhibit normal length until they are 17 or 18 and then they start getting shorter and shorter. That’s an indicator of aging. The findings suggest that (telomeres in) African-Americans may age faster than in other groups. We can speculate that the shortening of the telomere in African-Americans may be due to stress, discrimination, and all the negative experiences they endure through their lifetime.
This research resulted in a successful application for funding from the National Institutes of Health with my colleagues at the University of California, San Francisco. NIH is very interested in social epigenetics. How are genetics affected by socioeconomic and environmental factors? What are the changes in your DNA through exposure to social environments and stressors?
GC: The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health recently published two studies you worked on with colleagues in Spain. One study looked at how a changing neighborhood in Madrid impacted self-perceptions of locals’ well-being. Gentrification is a big issue in New York. Are your findings applicable here?
Dr. Borrell: Absolutely! For example, African-Americans who resided in Harlem have been displaced to the Bronx or Long Island when they have been in Harlem all their lives. The difference with Madrid is that the displacement is happening mainly with older people. They are feeling left out. They don’t feel connected. Here it’s happening with everybody.
GC: Your other study found surprising correlations between obesity and education in immigrants in Spain. Higher education levels usually correlate with less obesity. But your study found immigrant men with low educational attainment had lower levels of obesity, probably due to manual labor on the job. Yet immigrant women with more education were more likely to be obese, perhaps due to stress from low-level jobs like home health care. Any implications for the U.S.?
Dr. Borrell: It’s applicable here because we also see the changes in lifestyle around diet. But the part that is unique in Spain is when there’s a mismatch between education and jobs. For example, despite the fact that immigrant women arrive with a high education, the job market for them in Spain and other European countries is as home attendants. We found that immigrant women with high education tend to have higher levels of obesity compared with their native counterparts. 

Submitted on: OCT 18, 2018

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