Center for Pediatric Population Health

Improving the health of children and adolescent populations through evidence-based research to inform programs for health promotion, disease prevention, and health care.

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About the Center for Pediatric Population Health

Improving the health of children and adolescent populations through evidence-based research.

Welcome to the Center for Pediatric Population Health. The Center’s mission is to support multidisciplinary research teams to conduct studies and programs in collaboration with health care providers and community organizations to improve the health of child and adolescent populations. We serve as a resource to translate scientific findings and knowledge into practical applications for public health practice, health care services, and health policies.

Founded in 2018, the Center for Pediatric Population Health is the newest center at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. While the Center is physically located in Dallas, it has the capacity for regional and statewide reach through its connection to one of the largest schools of public health in the nation, with campuses not only in Dallas but in five other major metropolitan cities. It is worth noting the rapid demographic transition currently taking place in the state of Texas, which now has two of the most diverse metro areas in the entire nation; Houston is ranked first and Dallas fifth. As such, there has never been a greater time or opportunity to serve our Texas pediatric populations and aspire to health without boundaries for all.

For more information about the Center, read our executive summary here.

Current research studies and projects

The Center for Pediatric Population Health has the capability and expertise to work in numerous areas in the field of population health. Currently, active projects and collaborations include:

NIH Bariatric Research Study

Bariatric Health Study: Gut & Microbiome

Pediatric Long Haulers Study




Major areas of research

  • COVID-19
  • Social determinants of health (SDOH)
  • Sports-related concussions/sports medicine
  • Injury prevention and rehabilitation
  • Pulmonary care
  • Developmental and behavioral pediatrics
  • Healthy weight management
  • School and community-based interventions

What sets us apart

Population health is positioned at the intersection of medicine/health care and public health

The Center for Pediatric Population Health is housed within UTHealth Houston School of Public Health, one of the largest schools of public health in the nation, with campuses in Austin, Brownsville, Dallas, El Paso, Houston, and San Antonio. This along with numerous collaborations with leading external institutions, the Center has the capacity for regional and statewide reach. Founded in 2018, we aims to:

  1. Collaborate and foster partnerships and transdisciplinary research in clinical and community-based settings.
  2. Lead research discovery to generate evidence-based science and recommendations for clinical practice and community-based programming.
  3. Transform through education, training, and mentoring to improve pediatric population health and instill a culture of health for all families.
  4. Diversify our research portfolio with a nimble approach to meet immediate scientific challenges in the field.

We provide a variety of resources to support the research community in our mission of fostering a culture of data-driven, innovative, progressive strategic approaches to population-level pediatric research. These include guidance and support in the following areas:

  • Grant application or study protocol development
  • Study design
  • Sample size and power calculations
  • Analysis methods
  • Randomization
  • Case report form design
  • Data management
  • Database development and administration
  • Survey development and collection
  • Data analysis and interpretation
  • Presentation and manuscript preparation

Training the next generation of public health experts

Our hard-working, engaged students are the heart and soul of the Center for Pediatric Population Health, and everything we do is focused on their success on campus and beyond. This commitment starts with our faculty and staff, who bring a wealth of real-world experience and diverse perspectives.




Sarah Messiah
Sarah E. Messiah, PhD, MPH, FTOS
Professor and Director
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Messiah is the inaugural director of the Center for Pediatric Population Health and a tenured Professor of Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. She is a perinatal/pediatric and life course epidemiologist whose research focuses on childhood obesity and cardiometabolic disease risk factors and the implementation of evidence-based practices into clinical and community-based settings to improve health outcomes.
Andrea Betts
Andrea C. Betts, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Betts' cancer control research endeavors to enhance healthcare accessibility and the overall well-being of marginalized communities, with a special focus on individuals who have survived cancer during their adolescent and young adult years (AYAs). Her primary interest lies in the creation and execution of interventions grounded in empirical evidence, with the goal of enhancing the healthcare experiences and results for AYAs.
Alejandra Fernandez
Alejandra Fernandez, PhD
Assistant Professor
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Fernandez’s research generally focuses on the health of Hispanic adolescents and their families. Her research is centered around improving family functioning between Hispanic adolescents and their family members in order to prevent and reduce adverse health outcomes, including substance use behaviors, sexual risk behaviors, adverse mental health outcomes, and obesity related outcomes. The mechanism primarily used in Dr. Fernandez’s research to improve health outcomes is the development and testing of family-based interventions.
Serwaa Omowale
Serwaa S. Omowale, PhD, LMSW, MPH
Assistant Professor
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Omowale's research is centered on examining how employment functions as a social determinant of health and its influence on racial disparities observed in maternal health and birth outcomes. Additionally, she is dedicated to the creation of interventions that are culturally sensitive, aiming to mitigate negative pregnancy outcomes among Black women. Dr. Omowale employs a range of research approaches to craft interventions tailored to specific populations, ensuring cultural appropriateness. Her ultimate goal is to address and eliminate health disparities in areas such as maternal mortality, infant mortality, and preterm birth outcomes, ultimately striving for health equity.
Jenil Patel
Jenil Patel, MBBS, MPH, PhD
Assistant Professor
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Patel conduct research on congenital heart defects, along with designing new studies to create optimal occupational exposure assessment techniques in order to draw implications to reduce overall burden of birth defects. Additionally, he also works on conducting new epidemiological studies to identify environmental and occupational risk factors for pediatric asthma in North Texas.
Kevin Rix
Kevin C. Rix, Jr, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor
Publications    LinkedIn

Dr. Rix's research interests are primarily centered on injury and violence prevention, the application of implementation science principles to injury and violence prevention initiatives, and the field of injury epidemiology. Dr. Rix's research approach is strongly rooted in practical experience, as he dedicated seven years to managing an injury and violence prevention program at a level one trauma center in Austin, TX. During his tenure at the hospital, he served as a mentor for numerous UTHealth students who were completing their practicum experiences in injury prevention. His research primarily delves into the correlation between space-time factors and the risk of injury across various injury mechanisms.
Andrea Ramirez Varela
Andrea Ramirez Varela, MD, PhD, MPH
Assistant Professor
Publications    LinkedIn

Dr. Varela is a physician-scientist who specializes in the intersection of public health, physical activity epidemiology, and health policy research. Her career focuses on three areas: conducting studies among underserved populations in low and middle-income countries, establishing global surveillance systems for physical activity and policy, and using a syndemic approach to understand the link between physical activity promotion, non-communicable disease prevention, and infectious disease crises (such as COVID19). Dr. Varela holds a joint appointment in the Department of Pediatrics at UTHealth Houston McGovern Medical School.

Luyu Xie
Luyu (Amber) Xie, PharmD
NIH Postdoctoral Fellow
Publications    Researchgate

Dr. Xie received her PharmD in 2017 from University of Nebraska Medical Center and her PhD from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in 2022. Her ongoing research mainly focuses on 1) population-based, pharmacoepidemiological studies in asthma; 2) epidemiological research on the health outcome and behaviors of pediatric patients diagnosed with COVID-19; and 3) genetic risk factors detection using Mendelian Randomization. Dr. Xie is also collaborating with multiple research teams from the Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation, Departments of Internal Medicine and Obstetrics and Gynecology at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. She has co-authored over 30 manuscripts in peer reviewed journals and has presented her research at various national and international meetings. Dr. Xie has received the Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee Travel Award for outstanding poster presentation at UT Southwestern. She is also the recipient of the Denton A. Cooley, MD, Transformation and Hope Scholarship and the J. Fred Annegers Memorial Scholarship.




Elisha Barnett
Elishia Barnett
Sr. Administrative Assistant

Elishia manages the daily administrative responsibilities at the Center for Pediatric Population Health. She graduated magna cum laude with a BS in Health Studies with a focus in Pre-Occupational Therapy at Texas Woman’s University (TWU) in 2019. At TWU she was a member of the Honors Scholar Program and on the Dean’s List and Chancellor’s List.
Rashon Braxton
Rashon Braxton, MPH
Research Coordinator

Rashon is the Research Coordinator on a NIH grant funded study that investigates adolescent decision making in completing metabolic bariatric surgery (MBS). She previously worked in academic institutions and nonprofit organizations administering research studies and designing community programs targeting health inequity and food insecurity. She has a deep passion for technology and innovation to maximize health outcomes in underserved populations.
Jackson Francis
Jackson Francis, MPH
Center Manager
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Jackson is the manager for the Center and holds an MPH in Epidemiology from UTHealth Houston School of Public Health. His research interests include infectious disease, pandemic preparedness, and the affects of climate change on public health. In his free time, Jackson enjoys playing games, kayaking, and walking his dog Kira.
Sunil Mathew
Sunil Mathew, MS
Sr. Database Administrator
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Sunil manages the data and database systems at the Center for Pediatric Population Health. He has over 15 years of experience in the design, development, and administration of research, clinical, and administrative databases and has collaborated on numerous clinical and observational studies in community and health care settings.
Sophia Ngenge
Sophia Ngenge, MPH
Research Coordinator

Sophia is the Research Coordinator II on a NIH grant funded bariatric research study that investigates influences associated with the decision to have or not have bariatric surgery. She obtained her Master of Public Health in Epidemiology from Texas A&M College Station. She provides day to day project coordination and supports the recruitment of participants and data collection. She has previous experience working in the medical devices industry and the health department where she gained experience in data collection, analysis and coordination of projects. She is interested in epidemiological approaches of solving public health issues.



Graduate Students/Postdocs

Kristina Hill
Kristina Hill, MPH, MIS
PhD Candidate
Publications    LinkedIn

Kristina is a PhD student in Epidemiology with focuses in maternal/child health and biostatistics. She works on various projects in conjunction with colleagues at the Center and Children’s Health, most recently one comparing the effectiveness of different patient follow-up models in pediatric healthcare. Recent publications include two studies on the use of telehealth in pediatric care during the pandemic, also in conjunction with colleagues at the Center and at Children’s Health. Kristina’s research interests include the political and social determinants of health, and maternal/child health in refugee/PoC populations and conflict zones. She holds an MPH from the University of South Carolina and a master’s degree in international studies from the North Carolina State University. She has been working in clinical trials technology for the past 5 years.




Riley Brayton
Riley P. Brayton, MPH

Riley is a MPH graduate from the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics, and Environmental Sciences. She worked closely with Dr. Knell as his Research Assistant where her primary duties include patient enrollment and tracking, and accelerometer data processing and analysis for the Behavioral Factors Affecting Sport-Related Concussion (B-FAST) study. Riley’s research interests include maternal and child health, with specific focus on maternity care in the United States. She plans to continue working in this field in a career as a Nurse Midwife.
Elisa Morales Marroquin
Elisa Morales Marroquín, PhD
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Marroquín is a passionate obesity researcher and former Fulbright Scholar. She obtained her Ph.D. and MS from Baylor University. Her research has focused on 1) the relation between the gut microbiota and body composition, 2) exercise and nutrition interventions that facilitate weight loss and prevent weight regain, and 3) mechanisms of action of metabolic and bariatric surgeries. She is interested in gaining new insights in our understanding of obesity in order to improve its treatment. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Christian University.
Sitara Weerakoon
Sitara Weerakoon, PhD, MPH
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Dr. Weerakoon's research interests are in substance use epidemiology with a life course approach. She is skilled in data analysis, statistical methods, and geospatial analysis. Her master’s thesis combined the use of structural equation modeling and geographic information system (GIS) mapping software, while her dissertation currently focuses on the use of latent growth curve modeling to explore child growth over time after exposure to substances in utero. She has contributed to papers on childhood obesity prevention and substance use in adolescence and adulthood. Her research has been covered by Forbes, the Independent, the Telegraph, Futurism, and many more. She also has several papers under review and in preparation regarding adolescent sexual health, substance use in adolescence, racial and ethnic disparities in adolescent mental health, and other topics relating to child health. Her work has been accepted for oral and poster presentations at several local, national, and international conferences. She is the recipient of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence Primm-Singleton Minority Travel Award and the James T. Willerson & Nancy Beamer Willerson Scholarship in the School of Public Health. Dr. Weerakoon received her PhD and MPH from UTHealth School of Public Health and BA in Public Health from Austin College. She is currently completing her post-doctoral training at Yale University.
Josh Yudkin
Joshua S. Yudkin, MPH, MA
PhD Candidate/Graduate Assistant
Publications    Researchgate    LinkedIn

Joshua is a global social epidemiologist whose research portfolio primarily focuses on employing transdisciplinary approaches to quantify and assess sociocultural factors in vulnerable populations. He has conducted both field and clinical research in rural communities in places such as Tamil Nadu, India and Chihuahua, Mexico as well as with hospital systems in Texas in the United States. He has presented at major conferences like the American Public Health Association (APHA) and currently serves on the Texas Society for Public Health Education (TSOPHE) executive board. Joshua’s doctoral thesis is focused on Dynamo Kids! an e-Health intervention focused on addressing pediatric obesity for children ages 6-12 right here in Dallas, TX.

During his doctoral training, Joshua was awarded the Archer Fellowship from the University of Texas System, the Ralph I. Goldman Fellowship from the Joint Distribution Committee, and a Fulbright research grant by the United States Government and the Fulbright Commission in Colombia. Amongst other responsibilities and positions, Joshua currently holds a position as an Assistant Professor on the Faculty of Medicine at Universidad El Bosque in Colombia.

Joshua has published regularly in both academic peer-reviewed journals and in the popular press and is strong believer in paying it forward through intentional mentoring and coaching to both individual and organizational change agents around the world.

Chenguang Zhang
Chenguang Zhang, MS

Chenguang work focuses on biostatistics studies in electronic health record (EHR) data, especially in the high-dimension missing problems in EHR data. Having a background in medical and public health biostatistics, her research explores machine learning or deep learning methods usage in EHR or other claim data. She has been awarded the Dr. M. Stewart West Memorial Scholarship in Biometry, the Robert H. Bigelow Endowed Scholarship Award, and the Student Traveling Award from the Summer Institute in Statistics for Big Data (SISBID). She is currently completing her PhD at UTHealth School of Public Health.

Collaboration is the key to progress

The Center for Pediatric Population Health aims is to promote and facilitate collaborations among researchers, clinicians, and community organizations, so that together, groundbreaking research may be done that can have local, national, and global impacts on pediatric population health.

If you are interested in a research collaboration, please complete the following application: 



We currently collaborate on research projects with:

  • Children’s Health System of Texas
  • Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine
  • UTHealth School of Public Health
  • UT Southwestern Medical Center
  • Parkland Center for Clinical Innovation
  • Dallas Independent School District
  • Dallas Park and Recreation
  • The Cooper Institute


Contact us

Center for Pediatric Population Health

Trinity Towers
2777 N. Stemmons Freeway, Suite 8400
Dallas, Texas 75207

Phone: 972-546-2950
Fax: 214-819-3057
Email: [email protected]


    COVID-19 infection-induced antibodies may provide some protection against future infections in children

    Findings from TX CARES indicate that antibodies resulting from COVID-19 infection provide at least 6-months of protection in children ages 5-19, irrespective of age, sex, symptom status, or severity of illness. Vaccinations and boosters are still recommended even after natural infection, as the total duration for protection is inconclusive.

    READ MORESPH-Child Antibodies

    Children wearing masks sit on a staircase

    New metabolomics study reports metabolic alterations in mothers with CHD-affected pregnancies

    Dr. Jenil Patel is a collaborator at the Arkansas Center for Birth Defects Research and Prevention. As part of his recent involvement on a study on metabolomics profiles of women led by Dr. Ping-Ching Hsu and Dr. Wendy Nembhard, the authors characterized the metabolic alterations associated with CHD-affected pregnancies, focused on Tetralogy of Fallot and Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome. Overall, there were nine significant metabolites (p < 0.05) identified in HLHS case mothers and 30 significant metabolites in ToF case mothers. Statistically significant metabolites were further evaluated using ROC curve analyses with PC (34:1), two sphingolipids SM (31:1), SM (42:2), and PC-O (40:4) elevated in HLHS cases; while LPC (18:2), two triglycerides: TG (44:1), TG (46:2), and LPC (20:3) decreased in ToF; and cholesterol esters CE (22:6) were elevated among ToF case mothers. The metabolites identified in the study may have profound structural and functional implications involved in cellular signaling and suggest the need for postpartum dietary supplementation among women who gave birth to CHD offspring.

    READ MORESPH - Dallas - CPPH - Metabolomics Study

    Lab researcher placing sample vials in an ice bucket (Photo: Unsplash)

    New research indicates widespread community transmission of COVID-19 among children   

    Data from TX CARES indicates that children and adolescents have higher exposure to COVID-19 than adults based on seroprevalence analyses from across Texas.

    READ MORESPH - CPPH COVID Transmission in Children

    Results of the pediatric portion of the Texas CARES study

    Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C), a rare but severe condition that is associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection   

    Upcoming oral presentation at APHA 2021 Annual Meeting & Expo on the long-term complications in children with previously diagnosed multisystem inflammatory syndrome related to COVID-19.


    A virus

    Certain paternally-derived alleles show lower occurrences for obstructive heart defects   

    A recently published study by Dr. Jenil Patel evaluated the risk of paternal genetic variants and occurrence of obstructive heart defects (OHDs). Parent-of-origin effects in transmission of alleles in three different pathways (folate, homocysteine, and transsulfuration) genes were examined to evaluate the risk of OHD occurrence in offspring. The authors found that among infants who inherited paternally-derived copies of certain alleles, the risk for obstructive defects was lower compared to infants who inherited maternally-derived copies of the same alleles. The study was authored as part of Dr. Patel’s post-doctoral training at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Wendy Nembhard, PhD (UAMS) was the principal investigator and senior author of the study.

    READ MORESPH - CPPH Genetic Variants and Occurrence of Obstructive Heart Defects

    Micro Organismz

    Concussions are associated with cognitive, behavioral, and emotional health consequences for student athletes

    Research spearheaded by Center for Pediatric Population Health faculty analyzing data from more than 13,000 students shows that concussions may have a compounding effect on children, leading to long-term cognitive, behavioral, and emotional health consequences. This is the first study to report on the association between sports-related concussions and negative health implications based on a representative sample of U.S. high school students. Approximately 2.5 million high school students in the United States reported suffering at least one concussion related to sports or physical activity in the last 12 months, according to the CDC’s 2017 data.

    READ MORESPH - CPPH - Concussion Study

    One football player tackles another. (Photo by Getty Images.)

    Recipient of the Primm-Singleton Minority Travel Award and the President James T Willerson Endowed Scholarship in the School of Public Health

    Sitara Weerakoon has earned the Primm-Singleton Minority Travel Award and the President James T. Willerson Endowed Scholarship in the School of Public Health. The Travel Award is conferred to graduate students working towards a career in substance abuse research and covers travel costs to the international substance abuse conference the College on Problems of Drug Dependence Annual Meeting. The Willerson Endowed Scholarship is awarded to School of Public Health students based on academic merit. Sitara is a second year PhD student in epidemiology and a graduate research assistant at the Center for Pediatric Population Health.

    READ MORESPH - CPPH - Weerakoon

    Sitara Weerakoon. (Photo provided by UTHealth)

    Recipient of the Denton A. Cooley, MD Transformation and Hope Scholarship and the J. Fred Annegers Memorial Scholarship

    Luyu "Amber" Xie has earned the Denton A. Cooley, MD Transformation and Hope Scholarship and the J. Fred Annegers Memorial Scholarship. Both scholarships are provided to students from UTHealth’s six schools who excel academically. Amber is a first year PhD student in epidemiology and a graduate research assistant at the Center for Pediatric Population Health.

    READ MORESPH - CPPH - Cooley Award (Amber)