“To me, research is like putting together a puzzle. Just when you think you have solved it, there is that one piece that just does not fit. You rework the puzzle and learn through the process.”
To me, research is like putting together a puzzle. Just when you think you have solved it, there is that one piece that just does not fit. You rework the puzzle and learn through the process.
Growing up, Daphne Hernandez was always interested in the uniqueness of children and their individual development. She observed that in similar environments, some children experienced great health outcomes, while others did not. This sparked her interest in studying children and families with fewer resources.
“I wanted to find out where the deviation occurred, so I got a degree in applied developmental and educational psychology,” she recalls. “This helped me really understand the developmental stages of children and adults.”
Drawing from her own background, Daphne has focused her work on the health of low-income, immigrant Hispanic mothers and their children. Her research has found that for the most part, preschool-aged Hispanic children are at a healthy body weight, while their mothers are primarily overweight/obese. Determining where along the development trajectory that deviation in weight occurs is like looking for the missing puzzle piece.
Shining a Light on Those Who Need It Most
Being a child of Hispanic immigrants has helped Daphne make connections and build relationships with the populations her research serves. Understanding the various beliefs, customs, and attitudes —as well as being able to communicate in Spanish—helps Daphne be seen by socio-economically disadvantaged Latinos as “one of them”.
As a former Division I collegiate athlete and Olympic diver, she is also able to communicate with adaptive athletes (i.e., disabled athletes and those who participate in the Paralympic Games). The daily grind of training and balance between school/work and family is the same among all elite athletes. In the end, Daphne tries to be bring positive attention by providing dignity to populations that experience health disparities and have received relatively little research attention.
“Vulnerable populations get less attention. That shouldn’t be the case,” she adds.
Fueling a Passion for Mentorship
Daphne has students that have graduated; fulfilled their internship requirements to become dieticians; and are now working with low-income, immigrant, and minority populations. She is gratified to hear how they are applying parts of what they learned in her course, along with their applied research experiences, directly to their community-based jobs. “Just like I find research to be a series of puzzle pieces, students are unique puzzle pieces as well. It is exciting to see students reach their goals, knowing that I had a small role in their success,” she says.
Daphne is encouraged by the new ideas her students bring to the table. For example, her students’ creativity has resulted in the development of nutrition activities that are used to teach a community about health and wellness. Her own mentors, from graduate school to her current position as an assistant professor, likewise have been instrumental in her professional development.
“They paid it forward for me and now it is time for me to do the same,” she explains.
Seeing a Future of Research
Daphne’s New Connections grant continues to serve her today.
“New Connections allowed me an opportunity to research a topic using secondary data that was new to me at the time—immigrants’ health. Since then, I have collected and published my own data on the food insecurity and health of low-income Hispanic mothers and their young children,” she says.
Looking ahead, Daphne plans to investigate how cumulative adverse events in childhood and adulthood place Hispanic immigrants at risk for obesity and cancer. She also will investigate food and housing insecurity among community college students with Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and Dr. Katharine Broton through funding from the Kresge Foundation.
“I want to expand my work,” she says. “I started looking at young children, adolescents, and their families, and now I am focusing on college students. My overall goal is to help reduce disparities among vulnerable communities.”
Title: Assistant Professor at the University of Houston, Department of Health and Human Performance
New Connections Year: 2009
New Connections Status: Junior Investigator
Recent Publications, Peer-Reviews Conferences and Invited Presentations:
* indicates graduate student co-author at time of submission
** indicates undergraduate student co-author at time of submission
Hernandez, D. C.,Reesor, L., & Murillo, R. (2017). Gender disparities in the food insecurity-overweight and food insecurity-obesity paradox among older adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 117, 1087–96.DOI: 1016/j.jand.2017.01.014
*Silveira, S. L., Ledoux, T., Cottingham, M., & Hernandez, D. C. (in press). Relationship between functional status and depression in competitive U.S. male wheelchair rugby athletes. Spinal Cord DOI: 10.1038/sc.2017.40
Hernandez, D. C.*Reesor, L., **Machuca, I., **Chishty, M., & **Alonso, Y. (2016). Low-income immigrant Hispanic mothers’ concerns and perceptions of their young child’s weight. Public Health Nursing, 33(5), 412–20. DOI: 10.1111/phn.12252
Hernandez, D. C. (2016). Latino mothers’ cumulative food insecurity exposure and child body composition. American Journal of Health Behavior, 40(1), 92–9. DOI: 105993/AJHB.40.1.10