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Ph.D. Student Gets to the Root of Health Disparities Facing Hmong Farmers

January 8, 2020
Public Health Ph.D. student Chia Thao's research interests center on improving minority health disparities and promoting well being.
Public Health Ph.D. student Chia Thao's research interests center on improving minority health disparities and promoting well being of Hmong farmers in the Central Valley.

Chia Thao was a teenager when she arrived in Fresno with her family to begin a new life. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, where her Laotian parents had fled after the Vietnam War.

“Our parents brought a skillset to the U.S., found a home in the Central Valley and began farming,” Thao said. “This connected them back to their homeland.”

Over the years, she witnessed the challenges small-scale farmers faced and it prompted her research interests. Now, she is using her cultural knowledge of her community to help improve health outcomes.

Thao, a Public Health Ph.D. student in UC Merced Professor Nancy Burke’s lab, received the inaugural Central Valley Graduate Fellowship this fall to help support her research into how exposure to environmental factors leads to poor health outcomes of Hmong farmers in the Valley.

“The idea for the fellowship is to support graduate students from the Central Valley whose research interests will impact the Central Valley,” Vice Provost and Graduate Dean Marjorie Zatz said. “We’re extremely grateful to UC Merced Foundation Trustee Kenni Friedman and her husband, Lou, who provided the initial funding to launch this fellowship. We hope others will follow their lead and help us continue to build this fund so we can offer fellowships each year.”

Thao’s research involves assessing small-scale Asian farmers’ attitudes, knowledge and perceptions about the use of pesticide.

“Studies have shown that farmers who use pesticides are more likely to have poor health outcomes,” she said. “While there is an abundance of literature about pesticide use and exposure, there is relatively less known about small-scale farmers in rural areas and the effects of pesticide use on these populations. My research is central to addressing this gap.”

Thao is working with Hmong agricultural workers in Fresno now but will soon expand her research to Merced, which has the state’s third-largest Hmong population in the state behind Sacramento and Fresno (2010 Census).

She is examining the farmers’ health needs, how they navigate the resources they receive and who is helping them to navigate the system.

While there is an abundance of literature about pesticide use and exposure, there is relatively less known about small-scale farmers in rural areas and the effects of pesticide use on these populations. My research is central to addressing this gap.

Chia Thao

She collaborates with the Hmong Farmers Association and UC Davis Extension Cooperative Unit in Fresno, and she has made connections with Hmong community leaders in Fresno and Merced.

“I have to look to other research that’s closely related to my community in order to draw conclusions. This research will be a good foundation since there is no baseline,” Thao said. “It’s exciting and challenging at the same time.”

She brings a community health perspective to her public health research with previous experience working on issues like reproductive health and diabetes.

Thao earned a bachelor’s degree in health science with a minor in gerontology and Master of Public Health with a concentration in community health promotion from Fresno State. Prior to joining UC Merced as a doctoral student in 2016, she worked as a lecturer at Fresno State.

Receiving the Central Valley Graduate Fellowship has helped her focus 100 percent on her research.

“It lets me work two times faster and focus on my research with no other distractions,” she said. “I don’t know where my research will land. But this will help me build the foundation to learn more about concrete health outcomes.”