PhD student explores minority health disparities

Catherine Pérez describes herself as a first-generation student in every sense of the word.

Photo of Catherine Pérez from USC News.

“I’m first-generation … high school graduate, first-generation college, first-generation doctoral program,” she said.

Pérez, a Ph.D. candidate studying gerontology at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, is researching health disparities with regard to different social determinants. Though her research is with older adults, the information she has gathered about socioeconomics has allowed her to observe the importance of such issues among first-generation students.

She uses population-level data to compare health patterns across demographic indicators. Pérez’s educational background has allowed her to observe patterns that are visible in first-generation students who, when given inadequate support, can find college difficult.

Through her research, Pérez has evaluated how inadequate support for first-generation students can make college difficult.

“[We must think] about how that chronic stress builds up and how it affects life course outcomes,” she said. “We know that stress is also strongly associated with depression and anxiety and these are issues that lead students to drop out of school and this impacts life chances because education is associated with income, occupational status and health.”

When Pérez first began her research, she was interested in delving deeper into the relationship between socioeconomic disadvantages and health.

“I read and have done my own research that the association is that being socioeconomically disadvantaged is what affects health,” she said. “Why things are socially patterned the way that they are is basically how it influences [people] and you have to dig deeper looking at association.”

The success of first-generation minority students is dependent on available resources, she said.

“I think it’s important to point out first-generation students do require more resources at least at the university level just because statistically speaking first-generation students are more likely to be poor compared to [other students] on the campus,” Pérez said. “[They] are also more likely to not have been adequately prepared for college.”

She was motivated to pursue this research by her own role as a first-generation student and as a daughter of Puerto Rican and Honduran immigrants.

“[I wanted to get] more of that sense, more of that hyper-awareness of how identity really affects health,” Pérez said.

Pérez first began exploring her interest in minority groups and health as an undergraduate at UCLA, where she took classes in Chicano studies and health disparities.

It was further developed after she took interest in sociology of health and medicine.

“I started to see there are these really vast differences in health outcomes,” Pérez said. “I became very interested and concerned because if we’re not in our optimal health how are we supposed to do anything? If you’re sick you can’t work; if you’re sick you can’t help take care of other people; if you’re sick you can’t take time for yourself to develop or find your life purpose.”

Pérez’s research is primarily quantitative. She takes secondary data sets from sources like the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study and the National Center for Health Statistics’ National Health Interview Survey and analyzes them using computer programs such as Stata or Mplus.

Usually, she formulates her research questions on variables she is interested in and the story she is trying to tell.

“We can make inferences about the population at large,” Pérez said. “We can uncover patterns of what’s going on in our nation’s societies. [I fell in love with] understanding how we can take larger communities of people and understand what is going on at a national level and understand how macro- and micro-level influences are working simultaneously to produce these health differentials that we observe.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated for clarity.