Gerontology PhD graduate to study health disparities, including impact of COVID-19 on Puerto Rican older adults

Catherine Pérez Garcia PhD ’20, a first-generation college student, will continue her research on health disparities in minority populations as assistant professor of sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

2020 USC PhD in gerontology graduate Catherine Pérez Garcia has always worked to give back, especially to underserved communities.

Garcia, who was the first in her family to pursue a college education, first came to USC in 2014 and says her time at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and the opportunities found here have “shaped [her] into the scholar [she is] today.” While at USC, she not only took part in research and teaching but also frequently served others within and outside of the university.

The 2018 recipient of the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education Student Leadership Award, she helped students learn to analyze quantitative data and represented the USC Leonard Davis student body on the school’s diversity and inclusion committee. She has also assisted migrants completing their applications for U.S. citizenship at the USC Gould School of Law Project Citizenship Clinic, discussed social determinants of health with Cal State LA students considering health professions, and has volunteered at her alma mater, UCLA, as an alumni mentor for undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“While at USC, I have been afforded many opportunities and received tremendous support that has enhanced my understanding of Latinx aging and health,” she says. “I have great mentors, Assistant Professor Jennifer Ailshire and University Professor Eileen Crimmins, who support me, encourage me, and endorse me, and I take their advice sincerely. Their mentoring over the years has motivated me to seek opportunities to assist others.”

This month, she successfully defended her dissertation, Raíces de Salud (Roots of Health): How Sociocultural, Cohort, and Contextual Factors Influence Health among Older Latinos in the United States, to complete her PhD in gerontology. The project examined the social determinants of diabetes and hypertension among older Latinos in the U.S.

Since 2018, Garcia has conducted her research with the support of a National Institute on Aging R36 Aging Research Dissertation Award. Following graduation, she will join the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as an assistant professor of sociology, where she will continue her research on Latino health and teaching social statistics.

Garcia will also study the social determinants and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on older Puerto Ricans with the support of an award from the National Science Foundation-funded Social Science Extreme Events Research Network and the CONVERGE facility at the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. The project aims to highlight key ethical, methodological, and empirical gaps that could be addressed by the broader research community, which includes the older adult population of Puerto Rico on the island and in the U.S. mainland, she said.

“As a Puerto Rican and Honduran female of the diaspora, and the first in my family to pursue a college education, I am attuned to the scale of social and economic challenges that impact disadvantaged individuals and communities,” she said. “I genuinely want to do my part to lessen the challenges faced by others because I have learned many things on the way but have also been supported by many great people, so it’s my way of paying it forward.”