A few weeks ago, Emanuel Alcala, research analyst at the Central Valley Health Policy Institute (CVHPI), stepped in front of 250 fellow researchers and scientists to talk about an issue he’s most passionate about – air pollution in the Valley and its effects on children. The topic, which he’s been researching for the past two years, is what he presented on at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences/Environmental Protection Agency Children’s Centers Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
Some of the other researchers on the panel had 30-40 years of experience and held Ph.D.’s, compared to Alcala’s two years of experience in the field. However, you couldn’t tell as the crowd was transfixed by the data Alcala presented. That’s not hard to believe, as Fresno County is home to some of the worst air pollution in the U.S.
“It was an absolute privilege,” said Alcala of being asked to present. “The audience was asking a lot of questions. It got to the point that the moderator had to redirect questions because they were asking me so many.”
The meeting, held annually during Children’s Health Month, brought together researchers, clinicians, federal government staff and scientists, representatives of professional organizations and other participants together to explore the interplay between research, clinical applications, and policy implications in the field of children’s environmental health.
Alcala’s presentation looked at the effects of the CalEnviroScreen Tool, which is used by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to identify neighborhoods that have high pollution, high poverty and other similar risk factors. This collaborative effort, with the Children’s Health & Air Pollution Study (CHAPS), brought together researchers from Fresno State, Stanford and UC Berkeley to look specifically the effects air pollution has on children (15 and under) in the San Joaquin Valley.
“We studied ambulatory care-sensitive conditions in children, such as asthma, pneumonia – infections where you have to go to the hospital,” said Alcala. “We looked at neighborhood characteristics in the screening tool and found that diesel particulate matter (also known as air) and poverty were the big drivers of these types of conditions in children.”
Throughout the course of this study Alcala, and his CVHPI counterparts, Dr. John Capitman and Lauren Lessard, found that a correlation exists between areas of poverty/zip code and a risk for bad air pollution and ambulatory care.
“Basically your risk is associated with your zip code,” said Alcala. “Twenty-three percent of ambulatory care hospitalizations can be explained by social and environmental community characteristics. Your neighborhood is a big driver of these conditions.”
Some of the findings from this study were recently published in the Journal of Pediatrics, in an article co-authored by Alcala, Capitman and Lessard.
Although Alcala is relatively new to the area of public health, he always had an interest in the subject and didn’t let anything stop him from expanding on that interest. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Fresno State in 2010 and later a master’s degree in 2013. In fact, the day he graduated with his master’s degree was the day he began his journey with the CVHPI. He says that even though the two subjects are different, they have many similarities.
“The Central Valley Health Policy Institute has really provided a great environment for me to learn about public health,” says Alcala. “I’ve tried to merge my experience in psychology and public health and in a sense, yes, I feel like community and environment shapes both your behaviors and your health outcomes, so in that way there are definitely a lot of similarities.”
Alcala, originally from Southern California, has planted roots in Kerman where he attended high school and where his family resides. His interest to learn more about environmental health outcomes stems from a desire to give back to his community.
“I owe a lot to the San Joaquin Valley,” he said. “It’s played a big role in my education and I feel a great opportunity for me to give back in my own way is to help understand and help educate the region.”
And he isn’t stopping anytime soon. Up next for Alcala is applying to the Ph.D. in Public Health program at UC Merced. He hopes to one day form a research pipeline between the CVHPI and UC Merced to fully address public health issues in the San Joaquin Valley.
“I think I’m very interested in community determinants of heath and I think CHVPI definitely provides that lens in all of our work we do,” said Alcala. “I’m interested in answering the question of ‘What are the community, social and environmental characteristics that drive health?’ Working through it, I’ve increased my want to study this and expand on this. I think this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
To learn more about Alcala’s research, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.