Nixon Ricardo Arauz
Social and Behavioral Sciences Ph.D. student Nixon Ricardo Arauz has worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now studies in the VCU School of Medicine's Department of Health Behavior and Policy. (Kevin Morley, University Relations)

School of Medicine Ph.D. candidate uses national fellowship to advance goal of reducing health disparities

Nixon R. Arauz, a Health Behavior and Policy student, is the first to complete a prestigious national science and technology fellowship while still enrolled at VCU.

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A dedication to serving populations experiencing the effects of health disparities led Nixon Ricardo Arauz to a career in health education, a Ph.D. candidacy at Virginia Commonwealth University and now a national fellowship learning from the nation’s top experts about using policy to create change at the local, state, national and global level.

Arauz, a third-year student in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Ph.D. program in the VCU School of Medicine’s Department of Health Behavior and Policy, recently completed a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. While others have completed the fellowship program after graduating or having taught as faculty, Arauz became the first fellow in the program’s history to complete the program while enrolled as a student at VCU.

But while Arauz knows he’ll carry forth the lessons he’s learned in the fellowship, it’s just one of many experiences he hopes will be a lesson to the students he wants to teach in the future.

“I would like for this to be part of my toolkit — to be able to enrich not only my trajectory as a researcher, but also the trajectory of my future students and colleagues,” Arauz said.

Arauz, back right, with his fellowship cohort and Bruce M. Alberts, the former president of National Academies of Sciences.
Arauz, back right, with his fellowship cohort and Bruce M. Alberts, the former president of National Academies of Sciences. (Courtesy photo)

Interest began with firsthand experience

Arauz’s interest in changing health care and health care policy started in Santa Rosa de Aguan, Honduras, where he was born. It was there, in 1998, that he experienced the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch, the second-deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record. The hurricane not only exacerbated existing health disparities but worsened rates of disease and mortality in Honduras for years.

After moving to the Bronx, New York, Arauz developed an interest in disease prevention and became a peer health educator, empowering individuals to take action around their health. These experiences ignited a passion for reproductive health and justice. He pursued this line of work throughout his undergraduate years at Cornell University.

After earning a master’s in health education at Columbia University, Arauz joined the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, working under the leadership of the associate director of health equity in the Division of STD Prevention.

“I was mostly focusing on understanding [sexually transmitted infections] among Hispanic/Latino populations in the United States,” Arauz said.

The work inspired Arauz to continue his training as an independent researcher and give back to historically marginalized communities.

“Fast forward to now — I am a doctoral student at VCU, where my main focus is to understand HPV-related cancers, specifically in the Hispanic/Latino population,” Arauz said. “There’s a linear progression to how I’ve come to make this decision to focus on these areas.”

The transition to VCU

Arauz sought out the Ph.D. program at VCU, in part, because of the emerging Latino population in the Richmond region. From 2010 to 2019, the population of individuals in Richmond identifying as Hispanic or Latino in U.S. Census data rose 12.8%, though research from the Urban Institute indicates Hispanic/Latino populations were among those undercounted in the last census.

Arauz’s dissertation will focus on HPV vaccination rates among Hispanic/Latino men — “a very understudied area of research,” said Dina García, Ph.D., Arauz’s mentor and an assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Policy at VCU School of Medicine.

“Understanding some of the beliefs and perceptions about HPV vaccination will help us understand the impact vaccines can have in preventing an expensive disease such as cancer — not only the economic but the emotional challenges it may have on individuals,” Arauz said. “Understanding that will be very important for me to contribute to the literature and to engage this particular population in seeking care.”

In addition to research, Arauz hopes to teach public health courses at a university after graduation — inspired by García’s mentorship and her focus on community-engaged research.

“I would like to be able to replicate the high level of mentorship that I’ve gotten from my faculty adviser,” Arauz said of García. “She has been really instrumental in my pursuit of different opportunities, so I think it’s extremely important for me to be able to bring that to the table as well. I can also provide that support to future partners that I engage with in local communities.”

García said the fellowship was an excellent fit for Arauz, given his goals.

“Nixon is dedicated to pursuing a career as a health disparities researcher with a particular focus on underserved communities, particularly Latino/Latinx communities across the U.S. and across the globe,” García said. “He’s also very committed to being a community-engaged scholar. His vision is to work alongside communities that are leading efforts to address health topics salient to their community.

“This is a very competitive fellowship that focuses on science policy and technology. So Nixon having the foresight to intentionally seek out that training at a very well-known institution and program speaks volumes to where he sees his work moving in the future.”

I want to encourage my fellow Rams … to put their names in the hat and compete at the national level for any fellowship or scholarship because we all have something to contribute. ... You don’t have to look forward to start changing the world. The solution is always right around the corner.

Nixon R. Arauz

Arauz said the fellowship was “an eye-opening experience” that allowed him to “learn not only from the federal perspective, but also identify some of the local strategies on how to solve problems.”

“I also learned more about bringing people from multiple disciplines together to answer questions related to diseases, conditions and lifestyles, and improving the chances to enact policies generated by our government here in the United States to improve quality of life,” he said.

During the fellowship this fall, Arauz worked directly with the director of the Board on Global Health in the Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine on a study to analyze and enhance the effectiveness of federal quarantine stations nationally.

“I’ve learned a lot from that whole process,” Arauz said. “From identifying scientists from across the country — different institutions, both academic institutions as well as federal agencies; local governments; city governments; people that work in these jurisdictions — to be able to provide recommendations for our future pandemic responses.

“I think that’s going to be one of the biggest takeaways for me from this fellowship and provide me firsthand exposure on how to think about the different aspects of a pandemic response.”

‘I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams’

Reflecting on his time in the fellowship as well as in VCU’s Ph.D. program, Arauz said he is grateful for his lived experiences — and those of his family before him — that got him to where he is today. He keeps the importance of recognizing those experiences — and of encouraging greater representation of the voices of students, researchers and community members like him who have been underrepresented in the health care space — in mind in his pursuit of community-engaged research and work toward achieving health equity.

“I think I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams, being part of the first generation — from my entire family — of scientists to go to college, get a graduate degree, as well as be exposed to high-level-of-thinking spaces,” Arauz said. “I think the resounding voices of those ancestors are already on the table, helping to craft a new way of thinking on how to be productive members of society and have a stamp on the legacy of care, as well as a legacy of inclusivity and equity.”

After spending 12 weeks this semester in Washington, D.C., for his fellowship, Arauz returned to campus confident that the lessons he’s learned will be part of the robust toolkit he brings to his future students. But this experience is one he hopes current VCU students can learn from too.

“I want to encourage my fellow Rams, who are pursuing Ph.D.’s, master’s and even undergraduate degrees, to put their names in the hat and compete at the national level for any fellowship or scholarship because we all have something to contribute.

“You don’t have to look forward to start changing the world. The solution is always right around the corner.”