Alum’s Extensive Data Work Helps Hispanic Health

Nine people in white coats stand for a picture in front of a green table with a floral arrangementWhen Benjamín Acosta-Cázares arrived at the University of Pittsburgh to study for a PhD in 1996, he already had experience studying health patterns as a medical researcher in Mexico. However, it was at Pitt where he said he gained the confidence needed to establish one of the largest national health databases in Hispanic populations in Mexico and the world.

Nearly two decades later, Pitt is recognizing that effort by naming him one of eight Distinguished Alumni Awardees from the Graduate School of Public Health.

“The epidemiology program here for me was great. It was like the American dream of epidemiology,” said Acosta-Cázares (GSPH ’15). “This award, this recognition of my work, is important to me. All the skills and abilities I have today and my knowledge of methodological issues are because of my time in the Graduate School of Public Health.”

The database he established has systematically compiled health surveys for more than 800,000 people, measuring obesity rates, drug use, sociodemographic risk factors and the prevalence of diabetes and high blood pressure, among other health factors for Hispanic populations.

“It’s a big undertaking to do the work he’s done in Mexico. It involves a lot of collaboration and having a sense of the big picture,” said Emma Barinas-Mitchell (GSPH ’98), associate professor of epidemiology at Pitt. “He’s very deserving of the award.”

Acosta-Cázares today is both head of strategic information at the Mexican Institute of Social Security and a professor of epidemiology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Building the database

A man with glasses in a blue dress shirt with a striped blue tieIn the early aughts, the national authorities of the Mexican Institute of Social Security (MISS) launched a strategy called Integrated Health Programs, which focused on protecting the health of Hispanic populations, rather than combating specific diseases or risk factors.

Acosta-Cázares led the design, planning and execution of a database that collected health institutional surveys that complemented existing information systems. In 2002, MISS sought his expertise to compile a database for Mexico’s population.

“(MISS) wanted an electronic database that listed preventive actions for health. Our first survey had about 80,000 people respond,” he said. “I think it was the first of its kind in Mexico, and we’re only talking about 17 years ago.”

As more surveys were sent out to feed the database, more people in Mexico and other countries responded. Despite the scale of the research, Acosta-Cázares and his small team worked with limited resources.

“It was amazing to see,” he said. “Soon after, researchers wanted to collaborate with us based on these results.”

Because of the data collected over the years by Acosta-Cázares and his team, other researchers have been able to conduct studies such as one published in 2016 in The Lancet, where the data was used to examine trends in mean body-mass index from 1975 to 2014. That research team used 1,698 population-based data sources, with more than 19.2 million adult participants in 186 of 200 countries for which estimates were made.

In a 2019 study published in Nature, the data was used to determine that rising rural body-mass index is the main driver of the global obesity epidemic in adults. The team based this on population data from 190 countries, with measurements of height and weight in more than 112 million adults.

Because of the scope of the database project, Acosta-Cázares’ PhD not complete until 2015 when he finally gave his doctoral dissertation, which focused on this work.

“These are things I wish I would have done,” said Ron Laporte, professor emeritus of epidemiology at Pitt and one of Acosta-Cázares’ mentors.

The two met in the ’90s in Mexico City after collaborators at MISS suggested sending Acosta-Cázares to Pitt.

“I was very impressed with him. So, we basically invited him to work (on a health network). And this was the early days of the internet,” Laporte said. “He’s an incredibly trustworthy and nice person.”

“For me, it was amazing to have these high-level professors at Pitt,” Acosta-Cázares said. “They trusted in me, and that allowed me to do these big things.”

Celebrate outstanding GSPH alumni

The University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health will recognize several alumni for their outstanding service to the field of public health with a virtual ceremony at 6 p.m. ET tonight.

The awardees include:

  • Shumei S. Sun (GSPH ’83) and Chongyi Wei (GSPH ’09): Distinguished Alumni Award for Research. 
  • Kathleen S. Knauer (GSPH ’92) and Leigha Senter-Jamieson (GSPH ’03): Distinguished Alumni Award for Teaching and Dissemination.
  • Wendy King (GSPH ’04): Margaret F. Gloninger Service Award for her significant service to her community.
  • Emma Hosman (GSPH ’17) and Brandie DePaoli Taylor (GSPH ’07, ’11): Early Career Excellence Award. 

Learn more about these alumni, including those who will be inducted into the Omicron Chapter of Delta Omega.