As an adolescent, Deshira Wallace, (’15 MSPH; ’19 Ph.D.) remembers filling in her demographic information on standardized tests and being faced with two options: Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino/a. At the time, Wallace had not heard of the term Hispanic/Latino, as it is most typically used as a designation in the United States and not in her home country of Panama. Now, Wallace, a newly appointed assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, wants to serve underrepresented populations by identifying and involving them in her research, which focuses on chronic disease prevention and management. Part of that work involves improving public health data sets to better encompass the nuance of racial/ethnic identity and experiences.
“I want to make sure I bring Black people and indigenous people from Latin America from the margins and to center them in the research and the public health narrative,” Wallace said. “Oftentimes, what’s been hard for me to do this work is finding reliable data. It ends up being forgotten.”
Wallace, who identifies as Black Latina, grew up in South Florida and completed her bachelor’s degree at Duke University. Following her undergraduate studies, Wallace worked in the private sector in Washington, D.C., where she influenced environmental policy, which drew her back to the field of public health.
For issues like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular health, Wallace works to bring indigenous and Black voices to the forefront of research, as they are often sidelined or underrepresented in research. Diverse, accurate, and representative data sets can be crucial when forecasting health outcomes and developing policies.
“These are the people I want to bring to the research,” Wallace said. “I want to incorporate their data to ensure that we account for their lived experiences and provide solutions to improve their health and well-being.”
Wallace said she often has to explain the relevance of her research and how it affects public health outcomes.
“Any time I’m in a space where they claim to focus on Latinx health issues, there is little to no depictions of Black people from Latin America, and very little from indigenous populations,” Wallace explained. “I want people to understand that the term Hispanic, Latino/a/x is sometimes very monolithic. I want to make sure that research accounts for the fact that various people from various populations have different experiences.”
As a graduate student, Wallace participated in The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success (DSS) programming, specifically, its Initiative for Minority Excellence. As a first-generation graduate student, she said the support was invaluable.
“It’s where several graduate students felt the most comfortable,” Wallace said. “We can talk about our successes, our challenges, and even mundane things in a very supportive environment.”
In graduate school, Wallace said it can be more of a challenge to build a sense of community and that DSS filled that need for her.
She hopes that celebratory months, such as National Latinx Heritage Month, will also encompass nuances that she captures in her own research.
“When we have these celebratory heritage months, oftentimes the depictions are really homogenized as to who they mean and who they define as Latinx,” Wallace said. “That’s a conversation that matters.”