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National Minority Health Month Spotlight: Paula Aristizabal, MD, MAS

, by CRCHD Staff

For National Minority Health Month, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) Center to Reduce Cancer Health Disparities (CRCHD) will feature researchers and projects that are dedicated to reducing cancer health disparities. This spotlight features Paula Aristizabal, MD, MAS, pediatric hematologist/oncologist at Rady Children's Hospital-San Diego and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology at the University of California San Diego. Dr. Aristizabal has earned both an NCI CRCHD Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) Diversity Research Supplement and a CURE Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K08).

Aspiring to Reduce Pediatric Cancer Disparities with the Support of a CURE K08 Award

For Dr. Paula Aristizabal, inspiration led to goals, and goals led to a career path—one committed to reducing cancer health disparities in children. Her inspiration for choosing such a career can be traced back to Colombia, her home country and where she completed her medical training:

I have always been an advocate for the vulnerable. My passion to improve care and survival in underserved children stems from growing up in a middle-income country and witnessing health disparities first hand.

Dr. Aristizabal analyzes the obstacles Hispanic children face to join clinical trials. As a fellow, her research was supported by a Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences (CURE) Diversity Research Supplement. Subsequently, she earned a CURE Mentored Clinical Scientist Research Career Development Award to Promote Diversity (K08):

My research has focused on the barriers experienced by Hispanic children to participate in clinical trials for treatment of cancer and how contextual factors such as race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, health literacy, language and acculturation affect outcomes in Hispanic children with cancer. The purpose of my K08 is to improve research literacy in parents of children with leukemia by adapting and implementing a tailored patient-navigation intervention.

The K08 award supplies Dr. Aristizabal with dedicated research time to establish her clinical research program, helps support a bilingual research assistant and biostatistics services, and gives her the opportunity to attend CURE workshops and meetings and receive advice from John Ojeifo, MD, PhD, MBA, her Program Officer. She believes the K08 will help to secure future funding and “…provides an exceptional foundation for becoming a successful clinician-scientist…,” says Dr. Aristizabal, who is “fully committed” to a career in this field:

My long-term career goal, as a Hispanic pediatric oncologist who serves a large Hispanic population in Southern California, is to develop an independent research career as a physician-scientist focused on reducing survival disparities in children with cancer.

Her medical training in Colombia and her efforts to form a pediatric cancer program through a collaboration with Rady Children’s Hospital reinforced Dr. Aristizabal’s commitment to reducing cancer health disparities. A “bilingual and bicultural physician,” as she says, Dr. Aristizabal brings beneficial perspective to her research:

I am fully aware of the role of culture and language in the care of Hispanics, and I bring this perspective to my research projects to enhance the understanding of variations in health outcomes related to ethnicity, culture and language. In my practice, I am reminded daily of the critical role of clinical trials in improving survival in children with cancer. I have observed, time and again, bewilderment in Hispanic parents as research is explained to them. This cultural awareness and my ability to communicate in Spanish help me gain the trust of Hispanic families.

Dr. Aristizabal, who as a mentee received “supportive mentorship by dedicated mentors” that has been “critical” to her academic success and is an important element of her K08 award, now embraces her role as a mentor. She has mentored 17 trainees, including medical students, MPH students, and fellows:

I wholeheartedly commit to mentoring junior investigators and serve as a role model for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I will strive to inspire minority researchers to also pursue academic careers in health disparities research.

To underrepresented students and trainees, Dr. Aristizabal offers this advice:

Persistence and grit are key. Don’t give up and have open eyes to career advancement opportunities that you have not considered. Listen to the advice from your mentors and also from your peers.

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