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U.S. Census Bureau Director Visits CU Anschutz Medical Campus

Strong social-equity advocate shares stories, gains view of research and diversity efforts

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Written by Debra Melani on June 17, 2024

As a little boy growing up in a drafty wooden bungalow in San Antonio, Texas, Robert Santos had a night visitor that traumatized the “probably 6” year old so much, he refused to sleep or return to his bed.

A tiny mouse with bulging eyes and twitching whiskers woke the young Santos after climbing onto his bed and making its way toward his head – one terrifying, stop-and-go scamper at a time. Just before the rodent reached Santos’ face, it beelined across his chest and headed back down his other side.

Santos made his escape, screeching all the way to his parents’ room. A few sleepless nights later, his Abuelita (grandmother) showed up, marched through the house, grabbed a pecan branch in the backyard, and ordered young Santos to lie down on the dreaded bed and shut his eyes.

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James Speed, Robert Santos, Regina Richards and Adela Cota-Gomez take a photo break during Santos’ visit.

For the next few minutes, she quietly murmured words in Spanish, brushing the leafy branch across his body. “She was administering a very special blessing,” said Santos, now director of the U.S. Census Bureau, during a recent visit to the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “That night, I slept like a baby.”

An early lesson in effective leadership

Receiving the healing prayer, a cultural tradition his grandmother learned growing up in a small village in Mexico, not only rid him of his fear of mice. It resonated so deeply, Santos said it helped guide him on his way to becoming the first Latino to hold the permanent, Senate-approved top census post in the country.

“What she was doing was being her whole self,” he said of his grandmother to a diverse group of graduate students gathered to hear his leadership advice in the Hensel Phelps Auditorium on June 11. “And by being her own self, and by bringing her traditions and her culture and her trainings, she was being a more effective Abuelita.”

Santos was invited to spend a day on campus by Elizabeth Juarez-Colunga, PhD, an associate professor of Biostatistics & Informatics at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH), who had heard him speak about his nontraditional educational path and his commitment to social and equity issues at last year’s Joint Statistical Meeting in Toronto.

“That background mirrors a lot of stories and experiences among our campus community,” said Betzaida Maldonado, MS, a student in the Human Medical Genetics and Genomics Program who introduced Santos at the seminar.

Maldonado, last year’s recipient of the Graduate School Distinguished Service Award, helped organize the day with other members of the CU Anschutz chapter of SACNAS (the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science).

A visit to inspire and connect

Highlighting for Santos the groundbreaking work in biostatistics and personalized medicine at CU Anschutz was one of the organizers’ goals. Santos met with experts in those areas, including Chris Gignoux, PhD, researcher and member of the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine, and Debashis Ghosh, MS, PhD, Biostatistics & Informatics department chair.

“It is important to tailor medical efforts to the individual, and to do so, we must understand the environment and cultural factors that impact health by engaging with the communities we intend to serve,” Santos said.

“We also wanted him to connect with underrepresented students and encourage community engagement and the pursuit of science careers,” said Maldonado, adding that students, faculty and staff were so excited by Santos’ visit it “energized” the campus.

“It is important to tailor medical efforts to the individual, and to do so, we must understand the environment and cultural factors that impact health by engaging with the communities we intend to serve.” – Robert Santos

Santos’ distinguished career includes numerous awards, both for his statistical research expertise and his notable efforts in enhancing inclusion and social justice. In 2022, he received the Ohtli Award, the highest recognition given by the Mexican government to acknowledge contributions to the Mexican community by people living outside of Mexico.

Santos was impressed by the strength of diversity efforts on campus. “The only way to advance science is to push for the inclusion of diverse perspectives,” Santos said, which was a common thread embedded throughout his seminar.

Some of the people and organizations Santos was introduced to included:

  • Regina Richards, PhD, MSW, vice chancellor of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion & Community Engagement and others from her office (ODEICE). Richards leads a team that develops campuswide DEI initiatives and engages in partnerships with local nonprofit organizations and efforts to strengthen community ties.
  • Carlos Catalano, PharmD, PhD, advisor of the award-winning CU Anschutz chapter of SACNAS and professor in the Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. SANCAS is a society of scientists funded in 1973 to further the success of underrepresented minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
  • Claudia Amura, PhD, MPH, of the Latino Research & Policy Center (LRPC) and assistant professor of research with the ColoradoSPH and the College of Nursing. The LRPC directs research and informs policy aimed at eliminating the health and education disparities affecting Latino communities in Colorado and beyond.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​
  • Adela Cota-Gomez, PhD, with the Hispanic Serving Institution Advisory Committee and the CU Cancer Center DEI Committee. The University of Colorado Denver and Anschutz Medical Campus became the first research university in the state to be named a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), according to an October 2021 designation by the U.S. Department of Education.

‘Bring your whole self’

Drawing from a person’s own traditions, culture and ancestors results in a stronger leader, Santos told the gathering of graduate students, returning to his story about a mouse, a pecan branch and a boy.

“I continue to reflect on and learn from that experience as I go through life’s new chapters. I realize that this incident has actually helped me come to terms with who I am as a person. It showed me the benefit of leveraging my own culture and my own values in my work that I do as a statistician and more generally in life,” he said.

As his Abuelita showed him, Santos said: “Your leadership has to come from within. You need to bring your whole self.”

Photo at top: Students pose with Santos, from left to right, Devon (Koya) Conradson, Oscar Muñoz, Betzaida Maldonado, Robert Santos, Grace Gustafson and Erik Serrano.