Public health student sees how research can help community

Graduate students interested in public health received a significant gift in 2014 from the Zilber Family Foundation, which donated $400,000 for scholarships. We talked to Justin Rivas, one of the first Vera Zilber Public Health Scholars, about his studies, his research on people living with HIV/AIDS, and his hopes for the future.

How did you get interested in public health?

I had a graduate degree in public policy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison when I decided to go to law school. I was in the first year of law school in San Francisco and had gotten involved in yoga. I also worked in this incubator kitchen that helped develop small businesses around food, specifically with female immigrants who were Latinas. That kind of community work and the prevention stuff I learned through yoga led me down a public health path.

How has the program been?

It’s been quite arduous. I’ve actually been going to school full time while working full time at the Center for AIDS Intervention Research (CAIR) at the Medical College for two years straight. Fortunately, the Zilber School has a lot of their instructors and coursework framed around a nighttime class model.

You work in AIDS research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Is that how you got interested in your capstone project on Chicago’s housing programs for HIV/AIDS patients and other vulnerable populations?

Working with HIV is not necessarily my career passion, but it was a project that looked at using social determinants and systemic policies, such as housing, to predict public health outcomes. That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s very much a focus of the work at Zilber. (Editor’s note: His findings led to recommending several improvements, including improved communication among agencies, creating smaller networks, improving training, and cleaning up centralized listings of the homeless to avoid double listings and remove individuals who had found housing.)

How did the Vera Zilber scholarship help you?

It helped a lot because I work full time and my wife was a full-time medical student. The scholarship encouraged me to go to school full time. I really wanted to try to get my program done in two years and go with her when she “matched” for her residency.

Where is she doing her residency?

She got matched at UW-Madison, which is great because our ultimate goal is to stay in Wisconsin. I grew up in Shorewood, right by UW-Milwaukee, and my wife grew up in Madison. So sticking around the state and doing good work here … that’s the plan.

Did your family always live in Shorewood?

No, my dad’s side is Mexican – his parents were first-generation immigrants. He grew up on the South Side on Fifth and Walker. He was a first-generation college student at UW-Milwaukee. Then he went on to law school at UW-Madison. He’s now part of the UWM Latino Alumni Association. My mother is originally from Illinois.

Do you speak Spanish? If so, how has that helped you in public health?

Yes, I studied abroad for a year in college, and then I did some research my first year of graduate school in Central America. I’m kind of a minority since there are fewer males in the public health field and not many Latinos. With CAIR, I’ve been working on a project on the South Side with Sixteenth Street Community Center and have also worked on a project in El Salvador. I’d like to focus my work in the future in working with Latino communities.

Given that, what’s your ideal job?

It would be translational – taking academic and evidence-based programs and policies, and translating them to the lay public and implementing them at a county setting in public health departments around the country. That’s one of the things that Zilber focuses on and one of the things that drew me there – the opportunity to translate a lot of the academic research and get it into communities where it can help people.

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