"What makes Research at CDU special is its engagement with the community. Everyone is here because they want to be here. They're committed to the work of social justice"

 

As the son of Ecuadoran immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, Homero del Pino, PhD, MS, took a circuitous path to CDU, where he has become a noted researcher on HIV and the cultural aspects of HIV education and prevention among gay men of color, primarily Latinos.

He earned a BA in Philosophy from Cornell and a PhD in the same discipline from UCLA before deciding he no longer wanted to be in academia. So he took a position with CDU as an administrator facilitating the grant-writing process for professors with community partners. "I was intrigued by the location," Professor del Pino says. "I didn't know there was a medical school in this community, and it was great to be part of that."

Soon, he became interested in trying his own hand at HIV research, obtaining a series of grants for pilot projects, and eventually he returned to UCLA and earned an MS in Clinical Research. After that, his path was set. "I was reeled in by Public Health," he says.

The defining features of research at CDU, according to Professor del Pino, are its focus on health disparities affecting underserved populations of color and the degree of community engagement.

"CDU is a good place to do research on topics of health equity," he says. "You don't have to justify what you're doing or explain why you want to do that kind of work on a particular population.

"For instance, what has been missing for a long time in HIV research has been the cultural component," says Professor del Pino. "You'd do HIV prevention messages or a condom promotion campaign targeted at gay men. But a lot of African-American and Latin American men don't identify as gay, even if behaviorally they are. They have sex with men, but if you ask them if they're gay, they say 'no.' It's a different cultural construct.

"So health literature aimed at white gay men doesn't work for these groups. They feel it doesn't apply to them," he continues. "That's the cultural nuance that's been missing. Here, at CDU, we can focus on and do research specifically on these populations, and as a result, develop more successful outreach, education and prevention strategies for them."

The community connection of the CDU Research effort is also distinctive. "We take community needs seriously," he says. "We do more than just get their opinion; we get them to be a part of our work: design, implementation, evaluation, publication."

There is no clearer example of that engagement than CDU's use of community faculty. "These are people with no formal research training, yet because of the impact they've had on the community and their leadership, they've been invited to become faculty at CDU," says Professor del Pino. "They're invaluable to the Research we do in these underresourced communities, and their participation is truly unique."

 

"Everyone is here because they want to be here. They're committed to the work of social justice"

 

 

Watts native Cynthia Gonzalez, PhD, MPH, Assistant Director, Division of Community Engagement and Assistant Professor, MPH Program in Urban Health, has a special connection to Charles R. Drew University and the surrounding community.

She was born in the original MLK Hospital, attended King-Drew Magnet High School and was selected for a research program mentored by a CDU researcher between her junior and senior years. Called the National High School Student Summer Research Apprenticeship Program," it was a transformative experience for Professor Gonzalez in her teen years. "Youth programs like that are essential to someone from the inner city. In my case, it allowed me to travel to Bethesda, Maryland, and later, Washington, DC," she says. "I met folks back then who are still my friends—from Florida, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and other places."

She ended up staying with the program for two years in high school, and a year as an undergraduate at UCLA. She even got to participate in a diabetes clinic at MLK, ending up performing research in the room in which she was born!

While attending UCLA as a full-time undergraduate and working full-time as a researcher at CDU, Professor Gonzalez says she gained research experience "you can't get out of a textbook or a classroom. I was much farther ahead in my undergraduate classes because of my work at CDU," she says.

In her 20 years at CDU, she has taught graduate courses ("Community Engagement" and "Racial and Ethnic Disparities") and undergraduate courses ("Intro to Public Health" and "Health Disparities") and has come to appreciate the University as a true exemplar of its mission of addressing health disparities. "One of our biggest assets is where we're located," she says. "In South Los Angeles, we're not isolated from real lived experiences. We see inequity in our front yards. We see the challenges we're trying to address and how we're trying to improve quality of life. Other universities are starting to move in this direction, but we've been doing this for a long time."

As a faculty member, she knows she shares a view of the world with students and staff at CDU. "Everyone is here because they want to be here," she says. "They're committed to the work of social justice beyond our '9-5 experience.' There's a passion. And when that happens, innovation flourishes, and that's exciting."

And as a native of the community, CDU is, indeed, "home" for Professor Gonzalez. "I had to walk through the University to get to King-Drew High School. I came here after school to use the computer lab or library. I still live a mile from here." she says. "The University welcomes differences and embraces diversity. I appreciate that."

 

"CDU is a place where students can start their educational journey, but they can also come in at any point in their professional or educational career."
 

 

 

 

That's how Delia Santana, PhD, RN, MSN, MPH, the Assistant Director of the Entry Level Master's Nursing program and Director of Clinical Education describes her path to CDU and its Mervyn M. Dymally School of Nursing (SON).  She had worked for L.A. County's Department of Public Health for 15 years, managing communicable disease prevention efforts, when she met former SON dean, Dr. Margaret Avila, at a county health facility.  Dr. Avila encouraged Dr. Santana to come to CDU to teach.

She eased her way in, first, as adjunct faculty for a year, and then full-time faculty.  Inspired by CDU's mission, Dr. Santana also appreciates the intimacy of the campus and the close relationship it creates between students and faculty.  "I love the small environment, where everyone knows everyone else," she says.  "It makes you feel like you can reach out to each and every student and learn their name.  When I know all my students in all the programs well, it makes the student feel they have more of a sense of belonging.   That faculty really cares about their success.  And we really do.

"We bend over backwards to make sure students get through the program.  It's not a place where we enable folks.  We still hold them responsible.  But we give them the roadmap to take to get to their educational goals."

"CDU is a place where students can start their educational journey, but they can also come in at any point in their professional or educational career."

The global work of CDU, facilitated by the Office of International Affairs to promote academic and research exchange, as well as study and service abroad, held great interest for Dr. Santana, a native of Jamaica.  Additionally, one of her tasks at the LA County Department of Health was to manage the potential outbreaks of Ebola a few years ago.  "The world is getting smaller, especially with regard to health," she says.  "I always help my students understand that the next communicable disease is only a plane ride away.  The globe knows no boundaries."

Dr. Santana sees CDU's strong community connections as essential to her work as an instructor and for the health of the community. "Our community focused approach and our emphasis on social justice are right in line with what I teach my classes in public health," she says.  "We need to build and connect with the communities around us, especially in medically underserved and underresourced areas."

 

 

 

"The enduring legacy of Charles R. Drew University is that it that it has produced some of the most brilliant minority physicians and surgeons who have ever practiced in this country."
 

 

 

Orthopedic surgeon Eleby R. Washington, III, MD, has been affiliated with Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science for over three decades.  After relocating to California from New York in the early '80s, he met CDU's associate chair of the orthopedics program, Lance Weaver, MD, who told Dr. Washington about the University's need for a pediatric orthopedic surgeon.  He was immediately interested.  Though CDU is technically not an HBCU, "I looked at CDU as an HBCU, one of the necessary institutions that provided training to underrepresented minorities throughout the country," he says.  

Over time, he became residency program director, then vice chair and then chair of Orthopedic Surgery at CDU.

"We have been able to train more underrepresented minority physicians than any other university in the country besides Howard," he says. "This is the vision that has kept me here for all these years."

His involvement with CDU continues to be a point of pride for Dr. Washington.  "Having been a part of the group that has produced a substantial number of the minority orthopedic surgeons in this country is huge," he says.  "And as an institution of higher education driven to address health disparities, particularly in communities of color, we are interested in diversity, cultural competency and provision of medical care to the underserved.  All of our medical services are directed toward those populations."

But perhaps the most gratifying part of his work at CDU is Dr. Washington's connection to the pipeline programs, initiatives designed to expose students from communities of color, mostly low-income, to STEM subjects.  "Being able to mentor and bring along young people has been among my most rewarding experiences here," he says.  As the medical director of CDU's most successful pipeline program, Saturday Science Academy II, Dr. Washington has been able to watch some students, progress from "as young as third or fourth grade, all the way through medical school."

To Dr. Washington, CDU is a special place because of "the mission and the people who believe in it.  There are other places where you will get more prestige and money," he says.  "But the people who come to school here will work in our areas around here, in South Los Angeles and communities like South L.A.

"Our students here are the people who will change this area," he continues.  "Not having these people would leave many in these communities without a lot of hope.  So, this is very important work that we're doing here at CDU.  "This institution is a change-maker for a lot of people who live around here, especially the SPA 6 area.  The people who work here absolutely see their work as a calling."

As for the role of CDU, both in the history of healthcare and as we look forward to a future with an increasingly diverse patient population, Dr. Washington is clear. "The enduring legacy of Charles R. Drew University is that it that it has produced some of the most brilliant minority physicians and surgeons who have ever practiced in this country," he says.  "We are the only institution of our kind in the Western United States.

"We've been through some ups and downs as a University.  But, the most important thing is, we continue to make life better for people in this community and communities like it."