Alumni & Friends
Wrestling With Health Disparities
Growing up in San Francisco's Mission District, surrounded by Hispanic, Asian, European and African-American neighbors, Dr. Esteban González Burchard, M.P.H. (B.S., '90) grew interested in his current line of research: how genetic ancestry and environmental factors influence health.
At SF State, he received the tools he needed, starting in Professor Barry Rothman's lab. "Barry exposed me to rigorous research and helped me think of scientific opportunities," he says. "One thing led to another -- it was just an avalanche of opportunity."
Throughout high school and college, Burchard was also an athlete. "High school wrestling and my coach Mike DeNatale (B.A., '80) saved me from the perils of growing up in a single parent household in the inner city," says Burchard, who joined SF State's team and wrestled throughout college. "One of the best lessons I learned was, I didn't need to rely on external validation to make me feel good."
Like many students at SF State, Burchard put himself through school by working jobs including a commission-only gig selling ice cream at Candlestick Park. "I exploited my athletic abilities, and paid for college by running harder up those stairs," he recalls. Burchard was on break from a roofing job when he received his acceptance letter to medical school at Stanford. His undergraduate classes in immunology and developmental biology with Professors Janis Kuby and Michael Goldman, he says, prepared him well for his medical training.
While a medical resident at Harvard, he helped identify the first gene associated with asthma severity, which was more prevalent among African Americans. "That project allowed me to merge my genetics training with my personal passion, which is health disparities," says Burchard. "It was like falling in love." He later developed the Genetics of Asthma in Latino Americans Study, in part to unravel a paradox: in the U.S., asthma prevalence is highest among Puerto Ricans but lowest among Mexicans, even though both fall under the category of "Hispanic."
"I knew that Puerto Ricans had more African ancestry than Mexicans," says Burchard. "What I thought was just a comparison of different ethnic groups turned out to be a very long journey down the road of the genetics of race, disease and differences in drug response."
Burchard, now a full professor at University of California, San Francisco, says it is generally accepted that there is about a 10 to 15 percent genetic difference between racial groups. Although research in this area is sometimes controversial, Burchard says all populations can benefit from discoveries about genetic risk factors. "Traditionally, we've studied European populations ... and tried to generalize that to non-European populations," he says. "It's important from a social justice and scientific perspective that we have representation of everybody, just like we couldn't generalize results from men to women for heart disease. They are biologically different, and it's important to recognize the subtleties between populations."
Share this story: