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Nearly two decades ago, IUPUI student Juana Watson had a dream: to inspire faculty and students from IUPUI's health schools to travel to her native Mexico to provide a few days of health care for those in her mountain hometown of Calnali. It was just a small seed, really. But that one spring break trip to reach out to those in need grew into another, then another, growing year after year. The IUPUI travel party grew: more faculty, more students, more schools joining the cause.

And now, the dream of one Mexican émigré has become the passion of another. E. Angeles Martínez Mier, like Watson a former IUPUI student and graduate, is now an internationally renowned teacher and researcher in the IU School of Dentistry. But she also is an integral part of the Calnali International Service-Learning Project's steering committee, along with Armando Soto-Rojas of the dental school, Sarah Stelzner, Diane Lorant and Joan Henkle of the IU School of Medicine, and Mary Beth Riner of the IU School of Nursing.

Watson's "seed" has blossomed. Its impact is felt throughout the IUPUI campus. It has become part of the curriculum of health schools. Calnali remains a service learning opportunity for budding doctors, dentists, nurses and other health professionals, as well as a practical internship. Lessons learned in those mountains have become an international research opportunity for faculty in one of IUPUI's dynamic new signature centers. And the vision, spawned by one Mexican woman and now tended by another, has become an international partnership linking IUPUI with Universidad Autonoma del Estado de Hidalgo, a major health-minded Mexican university.

"It all started as purely a service opportunity," says Martínez Mier. "Through the years, it caught fire and has become so much more. But most of all, it's still about helping those who need our help." Perfect blend

To Martínez Mier, her role in the Calnali project is "a perfect blend" of her career aspirations.

"From the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted a career in the sciences," says the native of Veracruz. No surprise there, considering that both her mother and maternal grandmother were dentists, her father an engineer, and her brother a physician.

As an IUPUI student earning her master's (in 1994, followed by a Ph.D. in 2000), she was first exposed to research work and "fell in love with it." She continued her investigations after graduation, returning to Mexico to teach and work. And that love remains strong at her alma mater: Martínez Mier is the director of the world-renowned fluoride research program in the IU Dental School's Oral Health Research Institute.

But she also has had a lifelong goal to incorporate professional service into her life, and Calnali has played a significant role for her. "The Calnali Program has moved from a service model to an academic model, a wonderful teaching opportunity," Martínez Mier says. "But I began to wonder if we were missing a significant research opportunity."

She and other IUPUI-based researchers had already begun gathering information from the mountain villages and other sites in Mexico, studying the impact on the health habits and concerns of those who life there compared to those who move to the United States. Out of that grew another of Martínez Mier's professional missions: the Binational/ Cross-Cultural Health Enhancement Center (BiCCHEC).

BiCCHEC was created to overcome obstacles to health and well being caused by differences in language and culture for Indiana's recent immigrants. Research and wellness projects tackle such issues as oral health, nutrition, health behaviors, obesity and more. The center links experts from several IUPUI schools, and also offers students an opportunity to get involved in research and community outreach with Indianapolis's rapidly growing Latino population.

"The center is a way for us to enhance what we already were doing," says Martínez Mier, "gathering information both in Mexico and here, to see what influences existed." One of the advantages of creating such a center on the IUPUI campus, she adds, is that it enjoys ready access to so many disciplines: medicine, dentistry, nursing, social work, liberal arts, public policy and more.

Creative thinking

That type of creativity intrigues Watson, now the senior advisor for Latino Affairs to Gov. Mitch Daniels.

"Angeles is the right person in the right place" to take the program to even greater heights, Watson believes. "Angeles looks for every opportunity for her students to learn from other cultures, to prepare them for their careers. She sees the whole picture, how her students can learn while making an impact on the lives of others." Watson says the personal contact between IUPUI students and faculty and the villagers in Mexico has made "an incredible difference" in the lives of both. But the impact has grown beyond a one-to-one touch.

"The work of the people from IUPUI has helped universities throughout Mexico, who have seen the value of service learning that is such a part of life at IUPUI," Watson says. "Now those universities in Mexico wish to do the same."

For Martínez Mier, the Calnali program "has given me the opportunity to serve hundreds of children in more than 20 rural isolated communities in Mexico, those who need it the most. And it has allowed me to work with professionals from nursing, medicine, public health, pharmacy and optometry, to learn new approaches to solving problems. It has taught me to value the opportunities I have been handed in life."

Cherishes research

One of the opportunities she cherishes most is her research work, which has been funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research; Clarian Health; Delta Dental Insurance; the West Foundation; and the Borrow Foundation.

"It allows me to combine my scientific interests and public health orientation," Martínez Mier says. Her inquiries have led her to research pairings around the world, working with investigators from nearly a dozen countries in Latin America, Europe and Africa.

"The world is definitely shrinking," she laughs. "We're all connected, whether we realize it or not."

Martínez Mier has even found an international component to research in her own back yard, at the dental school and its research institute.

"We're the United Nations of dental research," she chuckles.

"We have more than 20 nationalities working here ... we've had to get used to many different working styles, but it has always made us — and our work — stronger."

At IUPUI, Martínez Mier has earned a 2008 Distinguished Research Faculty Award and a 2007 Boyer's Scholar honor among other awards. In 1999, she won the First Dental Award in Medical Research in Mexico from the Glaxo-Welcome Foundation while working at the Universidad Intercontinental in Mexico City. Her expertise is widely known; she has consulted for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What's most important, though, is she has an opportunity to work with IUPUI students and nurture the same love of research in them that she has in her heart. "I believe it is my duty as an educator to involve students in research, to spark their interest just like I fell in love with research when dental scientists exposed me to their world."

Enjoying life

Martínez Mier and her family enjoy life in Indianapolis, which she says includes a growing interest in adopting other cultures. When her husband, an engineer, got a job opportunity in Indiana in 2000, they decided that the city was a place they could call home, though it made the family's passion for scuba diving a bit harder to indulge.

Martínez Mier admits that she finds a bit of irony in a career that has taken her to IUPUI and Indianapolis twice — as both student and teacher — yet still leaves so much of her professional life inextricably tied to her native land.

But "the impact of the Calnali Program goes well beyond the Mexican border," she says. "It has a direct effect on what I do in Indiana. I soon realized that migrant and binational health were natural extensions of the work we conducted in Mexico, so I started to work directly with the Hispanic community in Indiana."

Because many of the problems Hispanic populations face stem from poor access to health care, Martínez Mier has become a strong advocate of recruiting Latino students for the School of Dentistry. She also is heading a multidisciplinary research partnership teaming dental researchers with counterparts from the IUPUI-based schools of medicine and nursing.

"We all want to make the greatest possible impact on the health of our communities," she says. "That's why most of us choose these fields in the first place."