Excellence in Action
Brenda Robles ‘07, M.P.H ’10, Ph.D. ’18
Interviewed by Monique Beals • February 6, 2020
To start, will you please describe your career path from UCLA to your current role?
I graduated from UCLA in 2007 with bachelor’s degrees in both Sociology and Chicana & Chicano Studies. I took about a year off before starting the M.P.H. program in Community Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. During that gap year, I worked as Lead Evaluator at United American Indian Involvement, Seven Generations Child and Family Counseling Services. This nonprofit organization offers comprehensive, culturally competent mental health services to American Indian and Alaska Native families in Los Angeles County. Actually, I was introduced to this agency as an undergraduate, when I was a Site Coordinator and Tutor for the American Indian Recruitment Program. It’s an outreach program operated through UCLA’s Community Programs Office. When I first started working at this nonprofit, someone, who also happened to be a UCLA alumna, encouraged me to go back to graduate school. I took her advice, and I began the M.P.H. program at UCLA in 2008. During this time, I also continued to work at Seven Generations. Going to school while working was great, as it allowed me to couple my work experience with my academic experience in real-time. It also illuminated gaps in my academic knowledge and training, and conversely, shed light on opportunities to apply my academic training in practice.
As part of my M.P.H. program, I was required to complete a 400-hour summer practicum and did it where I currently work, at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. Basically, my career in this health department all began from a summer internship.
My work as a researcher in the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention inspired me to get my doctorate. It was also the advice of my boss/mentor who encouraged me to get more training and thought I would be a good fit for a doctoral program. So that’s how I ended up back at UCLA for the third time. I graduated in 2018 with my Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences, from the same public health program that I completed my M.P.H. in.
I’m currently Chief Research Analyst in the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention. In this and past positions, I’ve had the opportunity to take on lead research roles, write manuscripts, work on grants, and overall use data to help inform programs and policies. I’ve also participated in policy discussions on issues such as the implementation of nutrition standards and other healthy food procurement practices. Right now, I’m leading the evaluation of our Sodium Reduction in Communities Program efforts here in Los Angeles County. This is a five-year CDC funded project. I’m also the Principal Investigator on a research project related to offering free integrative medicine services to low-income populations. Previously, I led research and evaluation activities for other federally-funded projects, including those focused on local implementation of chronic disease-related policy, systems, and environmental change strategies.
Overall, my time at the Division of Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention has been very rewarding. I’m very grateful for the range of experiences that I’ve had here. Especially as a first-generation college student, I would say being afforded opportunities to lead research and evaluation, especially on topics closest to my heart, has been a real honor and a privilege, especially here in Los Angeles County, my home.
What inspired you to choose this career path?
Honestly, I think I’ve taken a non-traditional path to get where I am now. It was a constellation of life events that led me to become a Public Health Researcher. If you would’ve told me a decade ago that I’d be leading research and evaluation at one of the largest health departments in the nation, I would’ve not believed you. To say the least, I didn’t take a linear path to get where I am today. In many ways, I didn’t choose this career. I feel this career chose me. It just happened naturally. It was a combination of leveraging opportunities presented to me, hard work, and a bit of serendipity. That is, being in the right place at the right time.
I also think I got here by capitalizing on opportunities, even if they didn’t exactly relate to what I thought I wanted to do at the time. For example, as an undergraduate, I had learned through one of my Chicana & Chicano Studies classes about the educational pipeline and how it was hard for certain groups to get into college. This inspired me to look into tutoring positions with MEChA’s Xinachtli program, a student-run outreach program through the Community Programs Office. Being Mexican, I thought I could work with students like myself, but there were no openings at the time.
However, there was one for the American Indian Recruitment Program, which was also an outreach program operated through the Community Programs Office. I thought, “Sure, why not?” From there, I joined the American Indian Student Association, which resulted in making some of my closest friends, fellow Bruins that continue to do amazing things in the community. To make a long story short, that’s how I ended up working at Seven Generations. Consequently, working at this nonprofit motivated me to go into public health and reinforced my desire to address health disparities in underrepresented communities. That’s just one example of how not really knowing, but following an opportunity, led me to where I am now.
In terms of my research focus on nutrition, it was my Mexican upbringing, alongside my undergraduate experiences at UCLA, and later working at Seven Generations, which piqued my interest in this topic. From an early age, food played a big role in my life. When my dad first came to this country, he worked at a bakery. I grew up watching him bake, and food, in general, has always been a big part of my family and part of my culture. In combination, these experiences have motivated me to conduct research focused on better understanding the intersections between nutrition, health, culture, community, and social and emotional wellness.
So to summarize, I fell into research by accident but ended up loving it. Research connects well with policy, which aligns well with my personal and professional interests. While I didn’t initially seek out to become a Public Health Researcher, conducting and leading research has been an empowering experience. Given my background growing up in an immigrant household, I feel a strong sense of responsibility to use my privilege to shed light on topics that may not always get the attention they deserve, especially those that have the potential to shape policy decisions.
How did your UCLA experience help shape your success?
First and foremost, I have very much enjoyed being a Bruin now having come back three times. I really cannot pinpoint one exact thing that has shaped my success, but I do have to say that mentorship matters. I would not be where I am today had people not mentored me along the way. As an undergraduate, I was mentored by a professor in Chicana & Chicano studies, as well as by a Teaching Assistant, both of whom I guess saw potential in me and helped me grow academically. To this day, I am still connected with them. And as I previously mentioned, I met my boss through my M.P.H. program, as well as other mentors, whom I still work with. They continue to play an instrumental role in my life. More recently, during my Ph.D. program, I also came across some wonderful advisors who have pushed me to keep going and to become a better researcher. That I’ve had people help me navigate complicated academic and professional systems has been critical to my success.
In what ways have you utilized the UCLA alumni network?
I’m still very much connected to UCLA and fellow Bruins. In the past, I have been involved with the American Indian Alumni Association. One of my best friends started a scholarship fund for American Indian and Alaska Native students over a decade ago, and I’ve tried to support him with that. This past year, I participated in Undergraduate Research Week as an alumni volunteer, where I listened to students take part in oral presentations on research topics of their choice and then provided them with feedback.
I’m also connected with the UCLA School of Public Health faculty. I’ve been able to lecture in some of their classes and have collaborated on manuscripts with them. As the Evaluation Lead for CDC’s Sodium Reduction and Communities Program here in Los Angeles County, I’ve been able to work with students, staff, faculty from UCLA’s schools of medicine, dentistry, public health, and nursing to help improve the nutritional quality of foods sold in one of their cafeterias.
What has been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?
This is a tough question. Picking one is hard. When I started conducting research at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, I think one of my biggest challenges was learning how to write effectively and concisely. The first time I wrote a paper for my boss, my introduction was over 40 pages! Let’s just say he asked me to get it down to under 2 pages. How I overcame that challenge was just practicing, a lot. On weekends, I read manuscripts and practiced writing them. I tried to take on manuscript writing projects at work whenever possible. I took notes on how people wrote. I sought out feedback from my boss and others who I considered excellent writers, and I’m very grateful for the constructive feedback that people gave me early on. This was all part of the learning process that helped me write better.
Another challenge was as a prospective doctoral student. The first time I applied to the doctoral program, I got rejected. That was a little upsetting, but I didn’t let that stop me. I reapplied and was later able to get in.
Then as a doctoral student, I also experienced some bumps, those which are not unusual, such as finding an advisor that is a good fit with your research interests and a suitable dissertation topic. How I overcame this was just reminding myself why I wanted to do a Ph.D. and reframing these challenges as opportunities. Specifically, it helped to view setbacks as part of the learning process, in the same way in which I often experience manuscript writing. For example, sometimes you submit papers to journals, and they don’t always get accepted the first time. It’s all part of learning how to work smarter, not harder, and overall using challenges as a tool for growth. Ultimately, these challenges have trained me to become comfortable with the uncomfortable. I’m grateful for the obstacles I’ve encountered in life because I don’t think I would be the person I am today without them.
What advice would you give to UCLA students and alumni interested in your field?
In general, and as cheesy it sounds, I would say do what you love because when you are doing what you love, your job will not be a job. Instead, it will be a career and something that gives you the drive to keep going, even in light of the hardest challenges. I’ve gotten to where I am today by striving to work on topics that I feel passionate about, especially those that have the potential to help people live better lives and to create healthier communities. Also, I think it’s critically important to be okay with not always knowing everything, especially when you’re working with diverse communities and stakeholders. Come in with an open mind and be willing to learn from others.
How do you participate and support in the UCLA community now?
In addition to collaborating on research projects with faculty, I also try to pay it forward through mentorship. I saw firsthand the power of mentorship, so I try to do the same as those who came before me. I often mentor UCLA students. I love working with students. In fact, it gives me great joy to see them grow and succeed. For example, one student that I worked with ended up taking the lead and collaborating on a peer-reviewed manuscript with me and my team. It ended up winning a student research paper contest award in the Preventing Chronic Disease Journal. Then, this student also helped my team write another manuscript evaluating the impact of the County of Los Angeles 100% Healthy Vending Machine Policy, which turned out to be a good paper. Since then, he has returned to UCLA for a Ph.D. in Epidemiology. It’s been very fulfilling to watch him grow as a student and researcher.
What makes you most proud to be a Bruin?
I’m a triple Bruin, having received my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees all from UCLA. So I consider myself a very proud Bruin. There are so many things that come to mind, but I think UCLA’s social justice orientation, focus on giving back, and working with diverse communities makes me proudest. Bruins are driving change and innovation in so many areas, even those outside of Public Health. I’m grateful to be a part of this kind of institution.
And finally, what’s next?
That is a great question! I’ve had so many opportunities to research a variety of topics. While my career trajectory has been very exciting and gratifying, one area that I’ve always been interested in that I haven’t fully delved into yet is examining the role that social-emotional wellness and mental health play in shaping chronic disease outcomes and lifestyle behaviors, especially at the community-level. That’s one immediate research goal that I hope to understand in the future. In the long term, I’d like to be a Director of a program focusing on translational research, one that expands my research unit to better inform programs and policies related to underlying social determinants of health. Luckily, I’ve had a lot of wonderful role models along the way that can help guide my path to achieve these goals.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Monique Beals is a Communications major and UCLA College Honors student from Memphis, Tennessee. She has previously interned at the Office of Senator Lamar Alexander, the Orange County Register, and Tegna Inc. She has also worked as an Urban Fellow for the City of Memphis. At UCLA, Monique has been involved as Marketing Director of the Community Service Commission in addition to working as a Student Recruiting Assistant for UCLA Athletics. After graduating from UCLA, Monique intends to pursue a career in journalism or law.
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