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Research training spotlight: NIA fuels career focused on health disparities

After earning her master’s degree and while working as a data scientist studying how people age, Ana Quiñones, Ph.D., kickstarted a career in gerontology without immediately realizing it. Those early days assisting with an NIA-funded study sparked her interest in biomedical research on aging and introduced her to an institute that became essential to her professional growth.

Ana Quiñones, Ph.D.
Ana Quiñones, Ph.D.

Now a gerontologist at the Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Quiñones studies how people of different races and ethnicities develop chronic illnesses as they get older. Her research is designed to help decision makers put health care services where they’re needed most.

“It’s a long, hard process to get on your feet in science,” Quiñones said. “But we all are very curious and have an insatiable appetite for the work that we do. We believe that the work that we do will make a difference in people’s lives.”

Feeding that appetite is a primary goal of NIA’s Training & Career Development Programs, with offerings that support emerging scientists (PDF, 78K) from K-12 education all the way through academic appointments and tenure. “We offer training and mentorship to help scientists really excel,” said Shoshana Kahana, Ph.D., deputy director of NIA’s Office of Strategic Extramural Programs. “Dr. Quiñones’ experience is a great example of how NIA’s training grants and other support can help launch a successful scientific career — and help sustain it, too.”

Taking health disparities to heart

Quiñones and other researchers who study aging have learned that individuals from certain races and ethnicities are more likely than others to have several overlapping chronic conditions at once, such as diabetes and heart disease. This means some populations are more likely to have poorer health outcomes and lower quality of life compared with others.

Addressing these health disparities is a key strategic priority for NIA. The institute has helped Quiñones study health disparities in older adults for more than 15 years.

She began her journey into aging research after getting a master's degree in economics. She initially worked as a research associate on the Health and Retirement Study, an NIA-funded survey that follows 20,000 people over the age of 50. The survey, based at the University of Michigan (UM) School of Public Health, explores how people's health changes as they get older and if they retire.

Working on data science and aging research as part of this survey inspired Quiñones to develop her own research questions comparing racial and ethnic groups, which would become a primary focus in her career. She decided to pursue a doctorate in health policy at UM.

Gaining life skills for research success

Quiñones' doctoral advisor, Jersey Liang, Ph.D., guided her to NIA training programs that could support her work. While in graduate school, NIA awarded Quiñones a Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (F31), which enabled her to gain grant-writing skills and other experiences needed to be an independent research professor.

NIA’s F31 award “taught me to endure,” Quiñones said. “It taught me the professional socialization process of learning how to write grants — that patience and perseverance to listen to critiques, to be able think about feedback, and to integrate those comments into your proposal. The process of trying and trying again was really helpful.”

Later in graduate school, she applied for and received funding for her dissertation on ethnic trajectories of aging through an R36 award. This helped Quiñones write the three papers that comprised her thesis.

“My graduate studies really launched a lot of the work that I’m still doing,” Quiñones said. “That includes a lot of racial and ethnic patterning of multiple chronic conditions, involving physical disease and mental health, disease, and depression. How do these conditions occur differently at different ages and in different combinations? Do we see different health care utilization for different groups of older Americans?”

Hedging research funding bets

After earning her doctorate, Quiñones worked at both the Veterans Health Administration in Portland, Oregon, and at OHSU. She split her time as a researcher with the VHA's Evidence Based Synthesis Program and as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine. She also received support through an American Diabetes Association career development award.

“I did come back to NIA later,” Quiñones said. “But you should always hedge your bets. Apply, apply, apply, apply. Don’t give up; be persistent. Look for any opportunities that might fit your research agenda and career stage.”

For Quiñones, that meant looking at career development experiences offered by other parts of NIH, too. Institutional PRIDE funding — Programs to Increase Diversity Among Individuals Engaged in Health-Related Research, a research education award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute — became another access point for professional development.

“PRIDE was incredibly useful,” she said. “The program at San Diego State University was all about mentoring early career Latino investigators.”

The program’s two years of support enabled Quiñones to network with other early career investigators, including members of the cohort in the year ahead of her. The program kicked off with a two-week immersion, during which her cohort met in San Diego and workshopped a mock grant application.

Quiñones enjoyed mentorship through PRIDE from both cohort peers and established researchers. The latter mentors visited her at OHSU and advocated for her within the institution. They also helped expand her network for research and professional development, even after the program ended.

Coming full circle with NIA support

The PRIDE program eventually led Quiñones to a grant-writing bootcamp funded by the NIH-supported National Research Mentoring Network. This time, participants didn't write a mock grant for practice. They focused on a large research grant that would actually fund their work: R01 funding from NIA.

“It was a really valuable process of focusing on one particular application,” Quiñones said. “And refining and fine-tuning it until it was ready to be submitted. It became my first R01 grant from NIA.”

And just like that, Quiñones came back to where she started — using the Health and Retirement Study. At OHSU, her NIA-funded work has revealed that Black Americans end up with multiple chronic diseases about 4.5 years earlier in life than White or Latino Americans. These findings highlight the need to focus on preventing people from developing chronic diseases and managing the diseases better once people do.

As she circled back to the beginning, Quiñones reflected on the surprising path that brought her to where she is now.

“I always thought that a career in science would be very linear and stepwise,” she said. “But it’s far from linear, and I don’t think it has to be. There are a lot of rabbit trails. I think all of us have our own ways of getting to where we want to be going.”

Could NIA’s training and career development funding help take your research success to the next level? Learn more about advancing your scientific growth with support from NIA’s Training and Career Development Programs.

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