Scholar Story: Maria Ramos-Olazagasti, PhD

There is substantial evidence showing that forced parental separations and detention can have serious, lasting effects on children and families. We can’t ignore this evidence.

Moving to New York City for graduate school was more than an academic transition for Maria Ramos-Olazagasti. Having lived in Puerto Rico her whole life, Maria went from “the majority to a minority in one plane ride.”

While earning her PhD in community and developmental psychology at NYU, Maria witnessed how being designated with minority status is often linked to stressful experiences and adverse childhood experiences that can affect individuals’ mental health and wellbeing. Seeing these disparities on the streets of New York City motivated Maria to pursue a research path focusing on mental health in Latino communities.

“The experiences of those living as racial and ethnic minorities in the United States are quite unique, and these experiences can contribute to the existence and maintenance of disparities in health and socioeconomic outcomes,” Maria says.

Her research has shown, for example, that differences in symptoms of depression and anxiety between Puerto Rican children living in Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx, are explained by greater exposure to violence and experiences of discrimination among children in the Bronx, even after taking into account differences in background characteristics between the two groups.

In most research, Latinos in the U.S. are seen as a monolithic ethnicity, but Maria says the reality is different. Latinos have different health and social characteristics based on a myriad of factors, including nationality, environment, and lived experience. Additionally, Latinos are often compared to white populations, but rarely the subject of independent research. Maria’s research seeks to offer a heterogeneous look at Latino experiences and identify the nuances in Latino families and relationships.

“We tend to group Hispanics into a single category, when the reality is that there is substantial variation in the experiences, opportunities, and outcomes of Hispanic subgroups,” Maria says. “If we fail to examine these differences, we’re not going to be able to understand the unique needs and strengths of specific groups, which will hinder our ability to design effective interventions.”

After receiving her PhD and completing postdoctoral training in developmental psychopathology, Maria worked as a research scientist at New York State Psychiatric Institute and assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. She maintains a voluntary appointment at Columbia University, but now works as senior research scientist at Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization focused on improving the lives of children through rigorous research, action, and effective dissemination. Research at Child Trends focuses on how different aspects of a child’s life, such as family, school, and other contexts, affect child wellbeing throughout development—with attention to the unique circumstances of children living in poverty, children of color, and marginalized families.

As a senior research scientist at Child Trends’ Hispanic Institute and Reproductive Health and Family Formation area, Maria examines how culture and context affect Latino children and youth, with particular attention to the effects of adverse childhood experiences on their mental health and risk behaviors. She is particularly interested in expanding the concept of adversity to better capture the realities of Latinos in the United States. In particular, she is interested in raising awareness of the long-term trauma that current immigration policies can impinge on our nation’s Latino children, with the goal of informing future policy.

“There is substantial evidence showing that forced parental separations and detention can have serious, lasting effects on children and families,” Maria says. “We can’t ignore this evidence as we consider approaches to address our country’s immigration challenges.”

Within Child Trends, Maria also serves as investigator of the National Research Center on Hispanic Children and Families. She and a colleague have outlined ways for policymakers, clinicians, educators, and others to support Latino children who have been forcibly separated from their parents and subsequently traumatized. On top of addressing the trauma in these communities, Maria says, we must work toward removing the barriers—stigmatization, fear, discrimination—that prevent Latino families from seeking the help they need.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have far-reaching consequences, as teenagers reach adulthood, including early exposure to alcohol, teenage pregnancy, and other risky sexual behaviors. In her New Connections research, Maria examined the influence of ACEs on early alcohol use, comparing Puerto Ricans living in the metropolitan areas of San Juan and Caguas, and Puerto Ricans living in the South Bronx. She found that multiple adversities often accumulated, such as parental maladjustment, physical and emotional abuse, and exposure to violence, leading to a greater risk for early initiation into alcohol use.

“The fact that adversities usually co-occur suggests that we need interventions that target ACEs at multiple levels, not just individual ACEs,” Maria explains.

At Child Trends, several programs and services for families and children aim to promote positive parenting by increasing parents’ knowledge about children’s development and teaching parents strategies that support child development. Parents who possess this knowledge tend to use more effective parenting practices and engage in activities that support child development.

Maria was recently involved in a project that investigated what parents of infants know and want to know about parenting and children development. The goal of the study was to give parents a voice in what they feel they need more information about, how they want to receive the information, and from whom. The investigative team found that parents across socio-economic contexts want more information about their children’s socio-emotional development. Parents generally did not feel uninformed, but they sometimes struggled to find information from sources they considered trustworthy. Parents also hoped they could receive more support as they tried to implement recommendations at home.

“If we want parents to successfully use the information that we provide them, we need to make sure that we also show them how to use that information and provide support as they try to implement recommendations with their children,” Maria says. “Just providing recommendations is not sufficient.”

Parents across groups expressed a desire to learn more about what’s best for their babies. Making this information available to parents in accessible ways is key to enabling healthy child development, Maria says.

Receiving the New Connections grant was not only critical to developing Maria’s research, but the professional development she gained helped shape her career trajectory. Her mentor at Columbia, a New Connections alumna, encouraged Maria to apply, and through the grant process, their mentoring relationship grew stronger, enabling Maria to grow in her career as a scholar committed to researching underrepresented and underserved populations.

“Opportunities like New Connections have marked my career by providing the training, financial support, and networks needed to establish myself as a young investigator,” Maria says.