“‘The core of my work stems from my deep connection with people who suffer. I believe that I’m here to alleviate their suffering in whatever small way I can. This simple idea motivated me to join the public health field, and it still keeps me engaged and motivated today. It’s not easy work, but I want to make that difference.”
Sandra Echeverría has an unshakable determination to help others. This commitment stems largely from her own experience seeing those she loved struggle daily to have a meal to eat. In their home country of Ecuador, Sandra’s family lived in abject poverty among conditions that led to disease and early death of a newborn younger brother and cousin. Now, Sandra lives out her desire to help others through researching health interventions and fostering relationships as a mentor to students and colleagues alike.
Making a Difference in Diseases
Sandra and her family moved to the U.S. when she was five years old. As the first college graduate in her family, she pursued pre-med, believing it to be the traditional path followed by good students of immigrant parents. While working in a biology lab, however, she had an incredible mentorship experience that made her rethink her career path.
“A mentor noticed that I was very active in student life and campus issues,” Sandra recalls. “He asked if I’d ever considered public health, and soon, I was hooked.”
Sandra considered public health — and eventually, epidemiology — a perfect fit, as it allowed her to combine her health background with a desire to help those suffering with disease. After earning both a master’s degree in public health focusing on sociomedical sciences and a doctorate in epidemiology from Columbia University, Sandra began working to incorporate an epidemiological focus into research on social determinants of health. This interdisciplinary perspective allows her to examine how social conditions such as the built environment and neighborhood socioeconomic conditions, or cultural-specific determinants, affect the public’s health.
Now, even in the midst of publishing her research, Sandra still makes time for creating actionable policies, interventions, and programs tied to health disparities. Recently, she has been helping organizations create “cultural-organizational connections” (e.g., community health workers and bilingual fitness trainers) to help Latinos feel comfortable adopting new behaviors tied to cardiovascular health and diabetes.
Championing Physical Activity
Growing up, Sandra learned the importance of frequent physical activity.
“My dad was an avid soccer fan, and we played at parks every weekend when weather permitted,” Sandra explains. “I saw the power of physical activity in bringing people together, even in poor communities like the one I was raised in.”
Starting in graduate school, Sandra began looking at how neighborhood factors — such as access to walkable safe spaces — could increase active living and reduce the risk of heart disease in Latino populations.
Her 2011 New Connections grant allowed her to look at the role of both neighborhood contexts and immigrant status as related to cardiovascular risk factors — a topic Sandra continues to study. She is particularly interested in the uncharted territory of physical activity behaviors among U.S.-born youth as compared to foreign-born Latino youth, and the power of these behaviors to combat obesity in Latino youth.
Mentoring Others for Success
Once she entered the New Connections network, Sandra was struck by the powerful support she found, including both specific lessons that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation taught her, as well as the relationships she developed. Network members have supported Sandra in her work and in return, she mentors others.
“My New Connections grant wasn’t just about my individual career development,” she adds. “It was part of a broader mission to support those of us interested in health equity, to show us that we’re not alone, that we can do this together.”
Officially, Sandra has mentored more than 20 students, from doctoral students to those on her research staff — many of whom, she notes, are first-generation college graduates just like she was. But unofficially, the number is much higher, as Sandra also takes New Connections grantees under her wing.
“My research is only one of the ways in which I can contribute to New Connections’ work,” she states. “I mentor junior investigators to join that legacy of helping each other move forward.”
Title: Associate Professor and Deputy Chair, Department of Community Health and Social Sciences, City University of New York, Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy
New Connections Year: 2011
New Connections Status: Past Grantee
- Echeverría, S. E., Divney, A., Rodriguez, F., Sterling, M., Vasquez, E., Murillo, R., & Lopez, L. Nativity and occupational status as determinants of physical activity participation among Latinos in the United States. Forthcoming.
- Echeverría, S. E., Mustafa, M., Pentakota, S. R., Kim, S., Hastings, K., Amadi, C., & Palaniappan, L. (2017). Social and clinically-relevant cardiovascular risk factors in Asian Americans: NHANES 2011-2014. Prev Med, S0091–7435(17)30072–5.
- Echeverría, S. E., Gundersen, D., Manderski, M., & Delnevo, C. (2015). Social norms and its correlates as a pathway to smoking among young Latino adults. Soc Sci Med, 124, 187–195.
- Echeverría, S. E., Pentakota, S. R., Abraido-Lanza, A., Janevic, T., Gundersen, D. A., Ramirez, S. R., & Delnevo, C. D. (2013). Clashing paradigms: An empirical examination of cultural proxies and socioeconomic condition shaping Latino health. Ann Epidemiol, 23(10), 608–13. PMID: 23972617.