Celeste-Villalvir named Health Policy Research Scholar by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Alane Celeste-Villalvir 6844-small
Alane Celeste-Villalvir

HOUSTON – Alane Celeste-Villalvir, a second-year DrPH student in community health practice, has been named a Health Policy Research Scholar by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Health Policy Research Scholars is a prestigious national leadership development program designed to train doctoral students to use their discipline-based research training to advance health equity and build a “Culture of Health” — one that enables everyone to live longer, healthier lives. The program was created for students from underrepresented populations or disadvantaged backgrounds, who bring unique and diverse perspectives to their research.

Each year, Health Policy Research Scholars selects up to 50 scholars to advance their policy and leadership skills, expand their thinking through collaboration across disciplines, and gain additional mentors and support to complete their dissertations. Over the course of the program, participants receive a stipend of up to $30,000 annually for up to four years, and are eligible for a competitive dissertation grant of up to $10,000.

Celeste-Villalvir’s research will focus on health disparities — particularly the health and wellness of individuals experiencing homelessness, engaged in sex work, using drugs, and sexual/gender minorities.

“The Health Policy Scholars program focuses on promoting a culture of health and health policy, which aligns well with the systems approach of UTHealth School of Public Health,” Celeste-Villalvir says. “Our work aims not only to elucidate the complexities of a health problem, but to have those findings lead to policy changes and community programs that adequately serve neglected and marginalized populations.”

Vanessa Schick, PhD, Celeste-Villalvir’s faculty advisor, encouraged her to apply.

“Alane’s commitment to learning and service is apparent in everything that she does,” Schick says. “I was optimistic that the award committee would see her potential and would want to support her in the great work that she is going to do. I am incredibly proud that I get to be her mentor on this project.”

Celeste-Villalvir grew up in poor neighborhoods in New York City and Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Her positive experiences with community and public health agencies in NYC, in stark contrast with the lack of public health infrastructure in the DR, naturally led her to work in public health. As an adult, she worked for NYC nonprofits around issues such as food insecurity and diet-related diseases, homelessness and opioid addiction. Now a military spouse moving every couple of years, Celeste-Villalvir also taught high school English in Del Rio, Texas, and helped organize disaster relief for Ciudad Acuna in Mexico after a deadly tornado hit the town in May 2015.

In 2016, when a longer-term assignment came up at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana, four hours from Houston, Celeste-Villalvir saw her chance to pursue a terminal degree in public health. She enrolled in the doctoral program at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, attracted by the school’s location in the Texas Medical Center and focus on social justice (Celeste-Villalvir lives in Houston and works on campus, while her husband is stationed and works full time at the base).

Earlier this year, Celeste-Villalvir was also named a recipient of the prestigious Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which pairs students with mentors, field experts, and community sites to meet vital local health needs with an immediate and lasting impact in the Houston-Galveston area. 

Through these opportunities, Celeste-Villalvir hopes to strengthen her knowledge of community health and do her part to promote a culture of health through her research. Celeste-Villalvir intends to continue working in the nonprofit sector after earning her DrPH, with a focus on program development and evaluation, and also teach at the graduate level and conduct community-health oriented research.

“I plan to learn as much as possible and take it back into the communities that need people who look like me, and have similar lived experiences, to support them in their journey toward health and wellness,” she says.

— Written by Anissa Anderson Orr