Embracing the Value of Roots in Your Research

“I always tell my students to value their early foundations because those are the fundamental elements for our research skills.”

Maria Idalí Torres, PhD, is not one to forget her roots. Her life’s work in Latino health care and sexual health communications stems from her childhood in rural Puerto Rico.

She was the oldest of 11 children, and her family didn’t own a television or a radio. With no modern sources of entertainment, Torres spent most of her childhood roaming through farms, of which there were plenty. Her rural community’s main economic source was agriculture. She credits this freedom to explore, and her naturally curious nature, as strong foundations for her career as a researcher.

One of the topics Torres was always curious about was reproduction and sexual health. As a member of a large family, she asked many questions about where her expanding circle of brothers and sisters were coming from, and why she had to share her room with them. Formal schooling in research, and interning at a sexually transmitted disease (STD) clinic in San Juan, further stoked her curiosity about sexual health and expanded her frame of reference. These early interests inspired her academic research on Latino sexual health and communication, such as the Por Ahí Dicen project, which evaluated a Spanish media campaign to improve Puerto Rican mother and child communications about sexual health.

In July 2017, Torres, director of the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston, spoke about the importance of how one’s roots can inform his or her research to participants at the New Connections  Symposium and Regional Meeting. Torres served as a co-chair for those gatherings.

She described how her early childhood environment — which was limited to her farm, school, and church — laid the foundation for her research projects. As part of her Cruza project, she studied what would motivate Catholic churches to disseminate knowledge about cancer screenings. Growing up in an environment where the church was a big part of her life, and the life of her community, Torres learned about the influence of churches in shaping public health.

Torres also shared the following advice about how early career researchers could expand their knowledge and better integrate their work into their communities:

  • Expand the frame of reference: Researchers should join transdisciplinary and, if possible, transnational, research teams.
  • Bring in methodologists who can see things from different disciplinary perspectives: This way, the researcher can be exposed to and learn many different methods.
  • Share the data: Researchers should remember their responsibilities to the residents of the community they are trying to help, and share data with them. Torres reminded the researchers that they are responsible for improving whatever situation they were studying.
  • Partner with students: Torres encouraged researchers to integrate graduate students into their work to build capacity. She drew comparisons to her life growing up on a farm planting seeds and how, as an adult, she has continued sowing seeds among the students she works with.

Finally, Torres reiterated the importance of valuing and integrating culture into research, “It’s very important to acknowledge all the funds of knowledge that we bring and integrate them into academic institutions.”

This post is part of a series highlighting top discussions from the New Connections 2017 Symposium. Stay tuned for upcoming blog posts featuring best practices on mixed methodology research and different quantitative and ethnographic methods researchers are employing to advance health equity.