Newly minted Kaiser Permanente research scientist uses his clinical experience to shape his research questions
By Sue Rochman
As an undergraduate studying nutritional sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, Luis A. Rodriguez, PhD, MPH, RD, found himself drawn to research on the role of diet in preventing type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. More than a decade — and 2 advanced degrees — later, that interest led him to the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research, where he completed his postdoctoral fellowship earlier this year and was recently appointed to the position of research scientist.
We spoke with Rodriguez about his interest in type 2 diabetes and how his clinical experience as a pediatric dietitian informs his research.
What led you to become interested in diet and public health?
It’s challenging to engage in healthy behaviors, but I fell in love with the area of prevention that focuses on helping people make changes that can prevent diseases from developing. Before going to graduate school, I had a wonderful opportunity to work in a pediatric diabetes prevention and obesity management clinic at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). I interacted with hundreds of patients and families who were suffering from debilitating conditions like obesity, fatty liver disease, and diabetes, and I saw the effect that those health conditions have on their life. That experience motivated me to go to graduate school to do research on how we can prevent these conditions.
As a clinician, I didn’t have the research tools or the frameworks to understand how to evaluate an observation that I had made clinically. Now, my clinical insights inform some of the research questions I develop. For example, we started seeing a lot of patients in the clinic with fatty liver disease who were progressing to diabetes and now, using Kaiser Permanente data, that’s one of the research questions I am studying formally: Do patients with fatty liver disease progress to diabetes more quickly than patients who don’t have fatty liver disease? It’s great to have that dual training and to be able to draw on your clinical strengths and experiences to develop meaningful research questions.
How does your research intersect with health equity?
It became apparent in my clinical practice at UCSF that a lot of these chronic conditions disproportionately affected Black and Latino children from lower-income families. A lot of my research is aimed at trying to identify the drivers behind these disparities. My work is broadly focused on type 2 diabetes prevention, but every one of my studies incorporates, even if it’s not the primary question, at least one question investigating inequity.
What appealed to you about the post-doctoral fellowship position at DOR?
I returned to graduate school in 2013 to start my master’s degree and since then I’ve been pursuing a research trajectory. Once I finished my doctorate, the T32 Diabetes Translational Research Fellowship at the Division of Research was a perfect fit and the next logical step for my career. The focus on translational research was exactly what I was seeking to do and the opportunity to engage in research in a health care delivery system along with the opportunity to be mentored by Julie Schmittdiel, PhD, and Richard Grant, MD, MPH, was very attractive to me.
What are you looking forward to as a newly minted research scientist?
I look forward to continuing to transition from being a mentee to eventually moving towards being an independent scientist and building and leading my own research team. I also look forward to gaining additional research and career development skills through a career development award and to learning new leadership skills. I’ve seen these skills in my mentors and learning to do these things on my own is something I look forward to. One of the great things about being at the Division of Research is that I have research and career mentors to guide me through the process, along with peers at the same stage, so I’m not doing this alone.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I have a wonderful wife, Cecilia, who is an attorney at a legal non-profit in San Francisco. We’ve been married for 7 years and have 5-year-old twin daughters, Samantha and Paula. They just started kindergarten and enjoy a number of activities outside of school, so most of our free time is spent taking them to their swim lessons, to ballet or gymnastics, or Sunday mass. And in the little bit of time that I have to myself I love to do outdoor activities. I’m a runner. I’ve run a number of full- and half-marathons, and right now I’m training for a marathon in November.