RISE Scholars

Melinda Sarmiento Bender, PhD, APRN
University of California, San Francisco
RISE Cohort 6

I am the first-generation college graduate in my family to receive a terminal degree. When my family immigrated to the United States from the Philippines, my mother had graduated with a high school diploma. My father received his GED years later. I grew up in a bilingual family where Tagalog was the primary language and learned English when I started kindergarten. I credit most of my success to the many excellent and supportive role models who taught me that I too could achieve my dreams through a combination of passion, encouragement, and perseverance. Through them, I also learned gratitude for my blessing, grace in success and failures, and the importance of “paying it forward” and giving back.

My research focus stems from a family, community and culture where Type 2 diabetes (T2D) and related comorbidites are rampant. Many Filipinos have at least one family member with T2D and have witnessed loved ones suffer and die from a debilitating preventable disease. I watched my uncles, aunts, and cousins with T2D develop kidney failure and long-term dependency on dialysis, while they suffered a slow demise. Currently, my mother, sister, and brother have T2D including cardiovascular disease.

Filipinos have the highest prevalence of sedentary behavior, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes among Asian Americans subgroups. Beside a genetic disposition, our health disparities are in part due to our cultural beliefs, dietary practices, and aversion to outdoor activities. Therefore, we are prone to developing lifestyle related chronic diseases that can be prevented or delayed through healthy lifestyle behaviors promoting weight reduction, physical activity and healthy eating. Yet, there is limited preventive health research focused on Filipinos to reduce these health disparities, and what is currently available is incipient.

Therefore, as one of the few Filipino(a) researchers in the United States, I am committed to promoting Filipino community awareness about our obesity, T2D and related chronic disease risks. My mission is to empower the Filipino community with the understanding and confidence to combat these preventable diseases and help improve health outcomes in our community. I am passionate about promoting healthy behaviors through culturally appropriate weight loss lifestyle interventions. Despite environmental barriers and limited research funds, I will strive to be a role model and mobilize this hard to reach Filipino community (if needed, one-person at a time) to proactively adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors and encourage their families and neighbors to follow suit.