Conversation with Dr. Eva Moya, University of Texas at El Paso

Translating Data on HPV and Cancer Prevention into Action

NIMHD’s Conversations with Researchers Advancing Health Equity

September 15 to October 15 is National Hispanic American Heritage Month. As we celebrate the significant contributions to America—from its history through present day—by people who represent Hispanic and Latino communities, we recognize researchers who are promoting health equity through their work to advance the science of minority health and health disparities.

Meet Eva M. Moya, Ph.D., principal investigator in minority health and health disparities research.

Dr. Eva M. Moya

Dr. Moya is Interim Chair and Associate Professor in the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) Department of Social Work. A native of the U.S.-Mexico border, Dr. Moya has more than 40 years of professional social work experience and has published peer-reviewed articles, chapters and editorials on health disparities and infectious diseases in Mexico and the U.S.-Mexico Border Region. Her expertise includes food and housing security, border health, intimate partner violence, photovoice method, tuberculosis and stigma, HIV/AIDS, homelessness, HPV infection and community health workers.

Dr. Moya is particularly interested in social and behavioral health sciences and transnational social work studies. Presently she is the PI or Co-PI of several federal and foundation grants, including her NIMHD-funded project, “Implementing Innovative and Strategic Approaches to Prevent and Mitigate the Deleterious Effects of HPV Across the Lifespan of Hispanics of Mexican Origin”.

Q&A with Dr. Moya

What inspired you to become a researcher in minority health, health disparities, and health equity?
I came to academia and to research as a late bloomer. I was a social worker for most of my professional life. As a social worker, I practiced both in the U.S. and Mexico, moving between the two countries. Even then, my work always focused on people’s health. Eventually, I became the Director for the U.S.-Mexico Border Health Commission for the U.S. Section.

As the Director, I found myself intrigued by the diplomacy, politics, and priorities. For the first time, I learned about, Healthy People 2000, which serves as the national agenda for the U.S. Therefore, in partnership with my counterpart from Mexico, I worked on establishing a Healthy Border version of Healthy People 2000. That experience allowed me to realize I needed to better understand research.

I left my comfortable position and returned to school, enrolling in an interdisciplinary health science research Ph.D. program at the University of Texas at El Paso. I’ve been in academia now for 12 years.

What is your research goal, purpose and aim?
No matter the size of a project, whether it's a $5,000 grant or a $1.5 million grant, my work is guided by several essential values. First, the paradigm of practice is grounded in the political and the social determinants of people's health. Second, I am informed by theory of change approaches. Third, I gravitate to ecological approaches. My work is multidisciplinary; grounded in people’s needs and health; and informed by the context of where people live, work, play, and love. And my work must involve taking an action. Without the work tying back to action, we can collect data, safeguard it, publish it, and even devise additional research questions, however the work will lack the translational element that’s central to my philosophy.

How is your work advancing health equity? Are you seeing specific changes in the health disparities experienced by particular communities or groups?
In my research, I tend to gravitate to populations that are marginalized. Maybe they do not have access to mental or medical services or are usually not part of clinical trials. Maybe they are not counted because they're status is irregular. Maybe they don't fully speak the languages of the system. That is the lens through which I have trained to look at research, to ensure that those historically marginalized voices and participants can speak out, their narratives and stories are known, their aspirations and goals heard and therefore inform research, practice and service.

Before you can close gaps, however, you have to identify what the disparities are. You have to quantify and describe them. My most significant contribution, with the immense help of my team, has been translating the data into meaningful actions that have allowed others in the field to make progress based on this data.

From the research you are doing, what has surprised you about the discoveries from your lab and its impact?
What has surprised me is the fact that we have done a better job in reaching girls and women for HPV prevention work than boys and men. And we haven't done a good job reaching boys and men either on the U.S. or Mexican side. It has helped us significantly that we live in a border binational region and collaborate with partners across international boundaries. It is fascinating that the HPV vaccine is a little bit more accessible on the Mexican side for girls, but not for boys.

I learned that we could spend our time collecting data, but we need to ensure that we are looking through the lens of gender diversity, socioeconomic status, different ethnicities, diversity of backgrounds, different geographies. We must continue to reach out to girls and women and recognize that there’s plenty of room for the work to improve in that regard. However, we need to do a better job of engaging boys and men equally.

The other thing that surprised me was from my time working with adolescents and young adults in rural communities. I found that there is limited knowledge about cancer in general. There is a disconnect about the role of HPV vaccine and cancer prevention.

How do we encourage the next generation of scientists?
We start early. We need to start in middle schools and high schools. Need take our research experiences, study findings, and make them translatable. As a research community, we can't keep talking to ourselves. We have to find a way to build scientific literacy at an earlier age. We need to diversify the way that we work with children and youth. We need to get them involved when they are young.

The question we need to be asking children and youth is not, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Rather, we need to ask, “What problem do you want to solve?” “What kind of world do you want to live in?” and “How can you make a difference and contribution?”

What do you envision as the future of minority health, health disparities, and health equity research?
I envision more communities of color leading and more officers within the federal government looking like the communities of color that they're serving. I envision behavioral science research and community engagement being supported and prioritized.

Page updated October 3, 2022