May 25, 2021
HERE Center Co-Program Director, Research Enrichment
Patchareeya “Patty” Kwan grew up in the 80s-era San Fernando Valley like many immigrant children did—navigating through unknown terrain and serving as an impromptu translator for their parents. When it came to medical matters, she acted as their bridge to information despite not being a medical professional.
“How many times have we had to go with our parents or our friends to be a translator at the doctor’s office? I used to do it all the time when I was younger,” Kwan said.
Kwan has always been immersed in health disparities research after first taking it up at the University of Southern California. Currently, she is one of the co-program directors at the Health Equity and Research Education (HERE) Center and also teaches public health courses at California State University, Northridge.
Her primary research nowadays centers on factors that hinder and facilitate good health amongst minority populations.
“Some of those [factors] might be understanding knowledge attitudes towards participating in research studies. [Another] might be smoking cessation,” Kwan said
A new passion of hers is health literacy, which is the ability to read, understand, and apply health information. She understands that a person’s ability to speak or read affects how well they manage their health.
“If you look at your food label, and somebody says you have to go on a low [salt] diet,” Kwan said. “So, a person goes in, looks [at] the back of a can or a bag of ramen, and there's no salt listed—it's usually sodium. Those abilities are compromised, because they aren't able to read it.”
Kwan moved to the US from Thailand when in 2ndgrade and went to school in the San Fernando Valley. Starting out with a biology degree, she then moved on and received a master's in nutrition and a doctoral degree in health behavior research, all from the University of Southern California.
She was always fascinated by her professor’s research in the sciences and decided to delve into research from that point on.
“It’s like being amazed by the things that have been done in science, whether it’s biology or public health, which is currently where I’m at as a professor,” Kwan said. “I think it’s doing the research and looking at the power of what research can do as well—how much fun it is to do.”
In particular, Kwan focuses on minority populations. According to her, the issues lie with conflicting priorities and cultural values that affect their final health outcomes.
One of her current projects is the Pacific Islander and COVID-19 study, wherein she interviews Pacific Islanders and looks into their experiences during the pandemic. The key goal is to look at barriers to getting healthcare access.
“[We are also looking at] factors that may help them facilitate care amongst people who were tested positive as wellas negative for COVID-19,” Kwan said.
Her other project is the Southeast Asian (SEA) Health Study, where she collects data on young adults and looks at the three of the least represented ethnic groups—Cambodians, Thais, and Indonesians.
Kwan’s research has always been community centered, utilizing community-based and community-partnered research approaches having with WINCART—or Weaving an Islander Network for Cancer Awareness, Research, and Training—and with the HERE Center.
“One of things [the HERE Center] is trying to encourage is community-based efforts,” Kwan said. “As a researcher, you don’t know everything about the community. [We] need to work with those community partners so we can exchange knowledge.”
Despite the HERE Center’s recent establishment in 2019, her overall work experience with the Center has been positive.
“Given the fact that they are new, they haven’t built the momentum yet,” Kwan said. “But I think in the future, there will be great things happening in the HERE Center,”
If there’s anything Kwan wants to impart to students wanting to pursue a career in research, it’s to start small, to be open to learning, and to be persistent about what you want.
My suggestion is to start small and be open to doing anything,” Kwan said. “Slowly build up from there because everything happens in small, little steps. I’ve been lucky to get very good opportunities given to me, but it all started in small steps that were very insignificant, but [became] significant later on.”