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Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Felipe González Castro

Featured: Spring/Summer 2016

Get to know Dr. Felipe González Castro!

Felipe González Castro is Professor and Southwest Borderlands Scholar in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University.  Dr. Castro is a Hispanic health psychologist who earned his doctoral degree in clinical psychology in 1981 from the University of Washington, Seattle Washington.  During his academic career, he has served as a tenure-track faulty member of the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State University; the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso; and in the Department of Psychology and the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at Arizona State University. 

Dr. Castro’s program of research examines multivariate models of health behavior and behavior change, to study the role of cultural and non-cultural risk and protective factors in effecting drug, alcohol, or tobacco abuse.  These models also examine motivational and familial factors in the prevention of type 2 diabetes among Hispanics/Latinos. His studies of cultural factors in Hispanic/Latino populations have examined the constructs of: acculturation, family traditions, machismo, ethnic pride, and resilience as associated with various health-related outcomes.  Dr. Castro utilizes a stress-coping-resilience paradigm to understand how cognitive, affective and behavioral factors affect health and well-being, including the expression of resilience. 

Dr. Castro is also the originator of the Integrative Mixed Methods (IMM) methodology, which offers a rigorous approach to the conduct of mixed methods research as applicable to the study of the sociocultural determinants of health in Hispanic/Latino and other vulnerable populations.  Dr. Castro has received research support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, from the National Cancer Institute, and recently from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  In 2002 Dr. Castro was inducted as a Fellow of Division 45 of the American Psychological Association.  In 2005, he was awarded the Community, Culture and Prevention Science Award from the Society for Prevention Research (SPR).  He has served as the President of the Society for Prevention Research from 2013 to 2015, and currently serves as this society’s Past President.    

Please tell us a bit about your educational background and how you became interested in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention research.

I first started my undergraduate studies majoring in mechanical engineering when I went to school at the University of California at Santa Barbara because I love science.  I wanted to do something to have a career in science.  Nonetheless, I shifted my ideas toward “applying science to people rather than to machines” so I changed my major to psychology.  I never regretted this change. My mother also had an impact on my interest in health because she had a book on health in our home and was the health advisor to all of us. In addition to her nurturing ways, she worked to help keep the family healthy. After changing my major to Experimental Psychology, then I pursued a master’s degree in social work from UCLA (MSW), and then continued on to earn my Ph.D. degree in clinical psychology from the University of Washington. My faculty academic career began in 1981 as an assistant professor at the UCLA Department of Psychology. Whereas I thought I was going to help clients as a psychotherapist, I launched my career as a tenure track clinical psychology professor. About that time I realized that “one size does not fit all” and my focus shifted to a community-based approach to be able to offer a greater public health impact versus the limited results obtained from seeing clients in a one-on-one environment.  I focused more toward the development of “treatment packages,” that is, psychological interventions that could be distributed to communities, as these could reach many more persons in need.  The ongoing challenge is that one also needs to make prevention intervention culturally relevant to meet the needs of diverse consumers.  Consumers of the world are very diverse in terms of variations in language, race, location, and cultures.  This variation makes the adoption and implementation of prevention interventions more challenging.  In summary, the scientific approach at applied to helping communities was thus more fulfilling to me. It’s about taking helpful tools to the people, to promote healthy living while also understanding that human behavior is individualized and interventions need to be tailored for public consumption with this diversity in mind.

How would you describe your current program to a non-academic/layperson?

My focus is on research on stress coping and resilience, and my goal is from that paradigm to understand the deeper elements of treating and preventing health problems in the real world, problems that are self-defeating (i.e., drug addiction). Understanding and knowing the different constituents and sectors that exist within a population, and the ways to appeal to these diverse “consumers” is key to designing and tailoring interventions “that work” for these people.   One of my shortest, yet, most often cited publication (i.e., Castro, Barrera, and Martinez, 2004) is a product of a decade of work focusing on how translation (applying research to the community/audience for use and adaptation) is the first step, but not the only step, in the cultural adaptation of an effective treatment or prevention implementation.  It’s like any other marketing strategy or plan: “How do you get the product to the market and also get people to buy it? These products, or in my case interventions for treatment or prevention, must be tailored to and must appeal to various population clusters or “subcultural groups,” or else these interventions will not be utilized, nor used on an ongoing basis. 

How does your research contribute to promoting health and preventing disease in the community?

The approach to promoting health depends on the health problem under consideration.   Addiction is one of the toughest health problems to treat.  And, it is a challenge to develop interventions, while also recognizing that knowing the consumer is important for getting people to  adopt and use your intervention within their “real world” environments. For example, one of the largest challenges in the fields of treatment and prevention is “sustainability” (keeping an intervention going, including the quest for more funding).  Another challenge is that it is difficult to get people to understand that prevention can be cost effective in the long run. For example, if community folk don’t actually see the negative events that can occur, it’s hard for them to accept the notion that the prevention intervention actually worked, versus the possibility that the negative events would never have happened in the first place. The issue involves understanding that if risk factors are there, without an intervention negative events will eventually occur within that community. My goal then is to continue helping residents of vulnerable communities to cope more effectively with difficult, stressful life situations. My goal is also to be successful in promoting healthy behavior change and its maintenance, i.e., making significant change towards a healthier lifestyle.

What makes you most enthusiastic about working within the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (CHPDP)?

The name says it all! “Health promotion” is in my blood, so to speak.  From the beginning of my career, my scholarship and research has focused in various aspects of health promotion.  In 1982, at the beginning of the health promotion movement, while an assistant professor at UCLA, I develop a health psychology course which I then taught several times to undergraduate and graduate students.  This course, was titled, “Health Promotion in Minority Populations,” and examined cultural and health approaches for health promotion within diverse  racial/ethnic communities.  This course taught about the prevention of the major chronic degenerative (lifestyle) diseases: cardiovascular disease, cancer, type2 diabetes, and addiction to drugs and alcohol.  These interventions combined the scientific knowledge of these diseases with the cultural skills for working with residents of these diverse communities.

 It is exciting to now be on the “ground floor” of shaping the ASU-CONHI Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (CHPDP), in making it relevant to Maricopa County and to all of Arizona. I look forward to building new relationships and partnerships with various community members and organizations. I know that this effort must also be based on trust and on becoming a trusted individual from the university.  This can be a difficult job at times, although also rewarding when you make new connections. It is also important, as a member of this center and university, that researchers on occasion travel in person to visit members of the local community.  One should not to be seen to be another “Wizard of Oz” who solely operates behind a curtain, (or the Ivory Tower).  This “personalismo” (in-person relationship building) with various community leaders is what can build trust. Furthermore, being a university professor and researcher is a very privileged position.  One of our ongoing challenges is to capture financial resources to then share these resources with our community partners.   It won’t be easy although it is rewarding.  I thus look forward to building a vibrant Center for Health Promotion, in partnership with the other members of the center.

What advice would you give an early career researcher interested in health promotion and disease prevention research?

Find your passion! Health promotion research is not for everyone and it’s not a big money-making profession; it’s a “helping” position. That said, one should be passionate about helping and should also enjoy research, as this involves data analysis and scientific writing.  Scientists are conceptualizers, meaning that we think through issues and seek to answer questions about “why” something works, or does not work.  Conducting research is also hard work.  You need to have desire and curiosity to discover or create certain things that will benefit many people within the community.  Mine is a rewarding job in many ways, and it has the possibility of touching many people, locally and across the nation.   

What do you like to do in your free time away from work?

This is the hardest question for me because I am not one who, for recreation, likes to do only one or two specific things. For example, I don’t collect anything or aim to do one or two hobbies.  I really enjoy spending time with my wife, Janie.  As one activity, I am happy to be back in a Major League Baseball  city.  My wife, Janie and I like to go to watch Major League baseball games.   Growing up in Los Angeles, I was a Dodgers fan.  However, as a kid, we could only afford to go to in the outfield bleachers section in Dodger Stadium.  Today when going to Chase Field to watch the Diamondbacks play, Janie and I can now splurge and treat ourselves to drinks and food in the nicer sections of the ballpark.  Janie and I also enjoy wine tasting with friends and going to the symphony or museums. I also love writing.  If I didn’t do what I do now for a job, I would probably enjoy some kind of creative writing, such as writing comedy skits, (i.e., being a skit writer for Saturday Night Live or one of those types of shows)! I have most recently taken time to refocus. While work is very important to me, I realize that spending time with those you love is also very important. Finally, spirituality and an appreciation for one’s life and place in the world also helps to “ground” me.   I realize that in my academic career that have been blessed, and I appreciate it.