Originally published February 24, 2016
By Laura L. Acosta
What doesn’t kill you doesn’t necessarily make you stronger if you’re an adult who is struggling with the physical and emotional effects of childhood adversity.
Studies suggest that adults who endured adverse childhood experiences – such as abuse, neglect, poverty or family dysfunction – have a higher risk for developing chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and depression.
“Kids who are exposed to childhood adversity might experience changes in their genes that cause an aggressive biological response to stress throughout their lives,” explained Hector A. Olvera, Ph.D., the new director of research at The University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Nursing.
Olvera is one of nine 2014-2017 JPB Environmental Health Fellows with Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a JPB fellow, Olvera received $350,000 in funding, which will help him launch a new study to understand how childhood adversity induces an amplified inflammatory response to air pollution exposure and accelerates the deterioration of mental and cardiovascular health.
This is the first study to emerge from the School of Nursing’s new strategic research plan, which outlines the school’s research priorities to address critical global health issues.
Olvera’s project will focus on epigenetics – the study of changes to the genome triggered by external or environmental factors, such as pollutants or stress. These modifications do not change the DNA sequence, but influence whether genes are “turned on” or “off” in the body.
Research has found that toxic stress during childhood alters the genes that regulate the body’s response to stressful situations, which can lead to systemic inflammation and disease later in life.
“Epigenetic changes mean that we can [pass on] this susceptibility to our children,” said Olvera, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering from UTEP. “If you are poor and exposed to childhood adversity, the way your genes express will change, accelerating the deterioration of your health. To make matters worse, you could pass these new gene expressions on to your kids.”
Breaking Free of Adversity
Empowering youth from disadvantaged communities to develop the skills and character traits to cope with adversity and realize their full potential prompted Olvera to launch the Alpha Youth Leadership Academy (AYLA) five years ago.
AYLA is a skill and character development program for students in the 8th to 12th grades who live in public housing in El Paso. It is funded by the UTEP School of Nursing and the JPB Foundation. The program’s curriculum is focused on developing authentic leaders who are self-aware and genuine through different experiences that will broaden their perspectives.
Participants meet on Saturdays during the school year at UTEP, where they learn about leadership, service learning and entrepreneurship.
“If your parents are poor, you normally stay poor,” said Christian Ledesma, a talkative 16-year-old who is easily engaged in conversation. “But that’s not the case with me, thanks to the academy. I haven’t decided what my career is going to be, but I know I’m going to college. I’m pretty sure I want to get a Ph.D.”
Children who live in low socio-economic status communities, such as public housing, are more likely to be exposed to childhood adversity, Olvera said. They also are likely to experience poorer health as adults.
That is why Olvera designated Ledesma and nine other AYLA participants to become the lead investigators in a parallel study about overcoming the adverse consequences of growing up in disadvantaged communities. Olvera awarded a $20,000 grant from his fellowship for training, materials and equipment.
The 10th and 11th graders will launch a study on one of four topics – social and health disparities, environmental health, stress and health or epigenetics – this summer. They are expected to present their results to the local community, the JPB Foundation and Harvard University in 2017.
“These kids are capable of doing great things in their communities through science and through other avenues,” Olvera said. “They just need to be exposed to the possibilities and need to become aware of their own strengths. That is what we are doing at the AYLA.”
The ‘Aha’ Moment
The stress of growing up without a father and worrying about her family’s finances left Esmeralda Garfio so anxious that she had a hard time talking in public or on the phone.
Garfio, an affable high school junior with a wide smile, wasn’t aware that her anxiety was triggered by the adversity she had experienced growing up until she attended a lecture on childhood adversity at AYLA. The 16-year-old had a big aha moment during class when she realized how the hardships she faced in childhood were affecting her life.
“I didn’t know I went through (childhood adversity) until (Olvera) told me what it was,” said Garfio, who credits her participation in AYLA with boosting her self-confidence. “I want to change the things that affected me so my kids don’t have to go through childhood adversity. I’m very anxious. I think I got it from my mom because she’s very anxious and I see it in my sister, too. I don’t want my kids to be anxious. So now that I know about (childhood adversity), I can put a stop to it.”
The students have been enthusiastically preparing for their new research endeavor since the fall 2015 semester. They’ve attended workshops on adversity and health disparities, watched videos on the environment, agriculture and pollution, learned about genetics and DNA through hands-on activities, and toured UTEP’s state-of-the art research labs, including the W.M. Keck Center for 3-D Innovation to become well versed in each of the four research topics.
This semester, students will participate in a research methods class, where they will choose a topic and develop a research proposal.
“I thought it was going to be research like books,” Garfio said. “But (AYLA) made it interesting. At first, I didn’t know what I was doing, but with all the activities and homework they gave us, I started putting the pieces together and it all just made sense.”
Knowledge Is Power
The lessons AYLA participants have learned have not only enhanced their education but have also impacted their future goals.
Garfio, who once thought college was not for her, now plans to attend Colorado State University to become a large animal vet. After learning about epigenetics, Ledesma has changed his eating habits. The future UTEP Miner hopes to end the cycle of diabetes that runs in his family.
Nancy Castillo never imagined she was destined for success. Now the 15-year-old dreams of attending UTEP and becoming an entrepreneur and an actress.
“Research is knowledge,” said Castillo, who was wearing her AYLA-issued navy blue blazer. “You gain knowledge to change things. Before I was in the academy, I used to think that you couldn’t change your life. I thought, ‘Okay this is what I’ve got and I have to live with it.’ After the academy I learned that I could change the pattern of my life anytime I wanted.”
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