From advances in studying determinants of health, to public health initiatives to combat obesity and patient case studies, researchers from across the country and world gathered recently at The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine’s second annual Research Symposium to discuss how they are addressing disparities in healthcare.

The symposium theme was “Health Disparities 2018: Closing the Gap,” and featured keynote speaker Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, Ph.D., associate dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, and professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology and Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Bottazzi, a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biology at Baylor University in Waco, presented “Global Health Technologies to Address Health Disparities and Neglected Tropical Diseases in the U.S. and Abroad.”

The symposium featured about 200 oral and poster presentations, including work done by UTRGV and School of Medicine faculty, post-docs, medical residents and medical students. About 400 participants – from high school students eager to learn more about scientific research to professional scientists – visited the McAllen Convention Center to showcase their research. The symposium also included presentations from various higher education institutions in Mexico.

Symposium organizer Dr. Andrew Tsin, associate dean of research at the UTRGV School of Medicine, said the theme was especially relevant, as much of the School of Medicine’s research focuses on reducing disparities in healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.

“Much of our research focuses on different biological, socioeconomic and behavioral determinants in health disparities … so that we would be able to design interventions that let the community know what resources are available to them,” he said. “Research symposiums allow faculty, staff and students to showcase their work, connect scientists with similar research interests and foster future collaborations.”


Among the research featured were patient case studies performed by UTRGV School of Medicine medical residents and students.

Third-year medical student Alexandra Bulga said the case study she performed opened her eyes to the disparities in health care patients in the Rio Grande Valley experience.

Bulga, who is excited to put into practice all they have learned the previous two years, also realizes socioeconomic factors can determine a patient’s care.

“Medicine is taught in the perfect world, but that’s not the world we work in,” said Bulga, who presented on how a patient with type 2 diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder had difficulty adhering to his treatment plan for diabetes because of his PTSD. Bulga won the award for Best Poster Presentation in the Medical Student category.

Dr. Marita Sanchez-Sierra, a resident at the UTRGV Family Medicine Residency Program at Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco, and her team presented another case study in which they treated an uninsured 62-year-old woman for chest pains and found out through a pathology report that she had an advanced stage of gallbladder cancer.

Sanchez-Sierra said the patient, an immigrant from Guatemala, had not seen a doctor in years. If she had received routine healthcare, the cancer could have been detected much sooner.


McAllen Mayor Jim Darling greeted participants at the start of the symposium. In addition to providing the location for this year’s event, the City of McAllen also is working with UTRGV to establish the School of Medicine’s Cancer Immunology Research Institute.

“It’s really exciting for the city to be a partner with the medical school,” Darling said. “I think the opportunities are unlimited here.” 

Darling said he participated in a clinical trial for the first polio vaccine when he was a child in Rochester, New York, and understands the importance of biomedical research.

“This conference is an indication of the difference that the university makes with the medical school, because you have people from all over the world here,” he said. “This is indicative of the future and the potential for the medical school and the good things it’s going to bring.”

Expanding research opportunities here not only spurs economic development, he said, but will lead to innovations in treatment for diseases and improvement in the overall health of the community.


·         Best Oral Presentation for Community/Public Health: Lauren Tien, School of Public Health, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (G-015)

·         Best Oral Presentation for Patient Care: Eduardo Lindsay, Dept. of Research, Children’s Health System of Texas (FSO-006); Jason Burton, School of Medicine, UTRGV (MS-022)

·         Best Oral Presentation for Translational Science: John VandeBerg, South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute and Department of Human Genetics, School of Medicine, UTRGV (FSO-022)

·         Best Oral Presentation for Biomedical Science: Cristian Mercado, Department of Biomedical Sciences, School of Medicine, UTRGV (UG-019)

·         Best Oral Presentation for Clinical Science: Juan Lopez-Alvarenga, South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute, Department of Human Genetics, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (FSO-017); Fatimah Bello, Dept. of Internal Medicine, UTRGV and DHR Hospital (FSO-026)

·         Best Oral Presentation for Biomedical Engineering / Technology / Computation: Marzieh Ayati, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Case Western Reserve University (G-002)

·         Best Poster for High School Student Category: Sergio Acosta, La Joya High School; Alejandro Ibarra, La Joya High School; Denisse Gonzalez, Vanguard Academy-Alamo

·         Best Poster for Undergraduate Student Category: Priscilla Acevedo, Department of Health and Biomedical Sciences, College of Health Affairs, UTRGV (UG-018)

·         Best Poster for Graduate Student Category: Angela Mar, Dept. of Psychological Science, UTRGV (G-016)

·         Best Poster for Medical Student Category: Alexandra Bulga, School of Medicine, UTRGV (MS-013)

·         Best Poster for Resident Category: Lisette Portes, School of Medicine, UTRGV, Residency Program at McAllen (R-029)

·         Best Poster for Postdoctoral Researcher Category: Nicholas B. Blackburn, South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute, Department of Human Genetics, School of Medicine UTRGV (P-002)

·         Best Poster People’s Choice Award: Natasha Quailes, Department of Biomedical Sciences, School of Medicine (G-022)