Meet Dr. Athena Ramos, Assistant Professor who focuses on Agricultural Health and Safety
Updated: Mar 24
Athena’s strong connection to the Latinx community has guided her to improve Latinx health and wellbeing through community engagement and transdisciplinary research.
Dr. Athena Ramos is an assistant professor at the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC). She is also affiliated with the UNMC Center for Reducing Health Disparities, Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health (CS-CASH), the Office of Latino Latin American Studies at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO), and the Minority Health Disparities Initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). One of Athena’s many responsibilities is teaching an undergrad course at UNO on Latinx health issues in the US.
She is also responsible for many of the community partnerships and relationships with Latinx communities across the state to facilitate research and other types of engagement. While she conducts outreach and service with and to the community, most of her work is dedicated to research. This means she serves on a variety of community boards, student capstone and dissertation committees, and supervises graduate students.
Athena’s research currently focuses on vulnerable workers in the agro-food system, mainly focusing on Latinx farmworkers in the Midwest region. She is also working with meatpacking workers who have been severely impacted by the ongoing pandemic. Another continuing effort of Dr. Ramos is a project on immigrant integration in rural communities where she aims to understand how immigrant newcomers feel in their communities and how community systems could better integrate and incorporate these new neighbors. She hopes to find common ground to build communities where everybody feels respected and valued.
But her work does not stop there! She is also working on a project in Europe focused on safety culture in agriculture, especially vulnerable populations like migrant/seasonal workers, immigrant workers, farm families, people who may have a physical, mental or intellectual disability, and beginning farmers.
Because of her multiple collaborations, she has been able to reach different campuses and states. She vocalized that her vision for herself and her team is to be the go-to resource on Latinx health and farmworker health issues in the Midwest region.
Enjoy the journey because the endpoint is always changing.
Athena thought she would probably be a high school teacher, but at times she didn’t even picture herself going to college. When she was an undergraduate at UNO, she got really involved with political organizing and had a strong passion for social justice and making the world a better place. Because of the work she had done, the Latino Center of Midlands (LCM) hired her to work with community programs focused on tobacco prevention and control. She said, “I didn’t realize at the time that tobacco is a very political issue and that there are a lot of global connections.” After three years at the LCM, her program was cut, and she moved to Creighton University as a health educator in the Cardiac Center working on Latinx health issues.
She made the leap to UNMC, where she has been for the last 13 years. Athena came into the academic world in a very nontraditional way. She initially started as a program coordinator and then got promoted to program manager. Agriculture had never been on her radar, but in 2012 after taking an ag medicine course, she realized there was a massive gap in what we know about ag health and safety-related to Latinx farmworkers. Eventually, Athena became an assistant professor after finishing her Ph.D. in international family and community studies from Clemson University. This interdisciplinary doctoral program was unique because it brought together public health, sociology, human rights, psychology, and development. She knew she wanted to do this program because she didn't have to narrow her focus on just one field.
She warmly expressed, “My whole professional career has been in Latinx health; little did I know that this was ever going to be me. I found that I have a powerful connection to the work and a great passion for the things that I do; I love my people, I love my community, and so for me, every day, going to work is not about the work; it’s about the people and making a difference in people's lives. I think that one of the beauties of the work we get to do is that we get to see the difference that you can make in people’s lives.”
Vicissitudes of life
Dr. Ramos expressed that one of her main challenges is being able to balance work and family life.
She said, “I am a mom, I am a wife, I have four kids, two in high school, an 8-year-old, and a 2-year-old. The idea of trying to balance isn’t feasible and balance itself is an illusion because it ebbs and flows where it needs to”.
As many of us have also experienced, she puts a lot of pressure on herself to be good and to be the best that she can. As she was growing up, her father always told her, “if you’re going to do something, do it all the way or don’t do it at all.” That has been her motto in life. While that may be motivating, Athena expresses that she also experiences a lot of guilt because she has so much work, she has to take a chunk of time from being with her family. On the other hand, if she spends time with her family, she feels guilty for not working on a paper or grant. She is definitely not alone in that sentiment.
Because of the uniqueness and value of her work in the Midwest, she is always in high demand, pulling her in different directions. Since her team is the liaison between the campus and the Latinx community, people on-campus contact them to understand how they can more effectively reach the Latinx community. She mentioned, “They’ve created great protocols that are scientifically sound, but logistically and practically may not work for the community.” Her team spends a lot of time back and forth trying to revise some of these protocols to be more culturally, linguistically, and logistically relevant. On top of being the cultural mediator, her team also provides Spanish language translation. In her region, there is still a lack of Spanish-speaking professionals who have the particular skill set to do that type of work.
COVID-19 Affects Everyone but Not Equally
A particular challenge of these trying times spans Athena’s work and home life. All of her kids were home for several months, so she’s been trying to manage her work projects and family. She expressed, “my dining room has now become my office, so now I have my stacks of papers and books and lots going on.” At the same time, Athena has been doing a lot of work with the meatpacking industry because of COVID-19. Dr. Ramos iterated, “It’s such an important issue and an issue that can make a difference in people's lives, like life or death. It has been a real challenge because the meatpacking project has taken over everything that was already a full plate.”
The purpose of her research with meatpacking workers was to understand how their workplaces have responded to the threat of COVID-19. Her team asked workers about the prevention strategies taken in the workplace, how they feel, and what are the things they were most worried about. They found that many facilities were doing simple things like taking people’s temperature, requiring masks, and putting COVID-19 related multilingual posters up, but other strategies such as social distancing, paid sick leave, and restructuring shifts were things that were far less frequently reported by workers.
Athena said, “Those are the things that matter, and if we are serious about reducing the transmission of COVID-19, then we got to talk about other types of strategies. Personal protective equipment should be the last resort and should not replace the other protocols that need to be in place. We have a responsibility and a duty to care for these workers, and unfortunately, the employers did some things, but they weren't doing as much as they should be doing.”
One of the numerous comments in the survey was, “Please help us do something. I hope this is not just another survey that we fill out and nothing happens”. In only three weeks, 637 workers participated in the survey, mainly from Latinx and immigrant communities. The survey spoke to the critical importance of the issue and the importance of telling their stories. Since June 2020, she has been doing presentations almost once a week about meatpacking issues, including tv interviews, newspapers and, even a Netflix documentary.
Farmworkers are the engine of agriculture.
In order to improve the agricultural sector, farmworkers need better working and living conditions. Agriculture has one of the highest rates of occupational injuries and fatalities across all industries. Athena mentioned, “this is a huge issue that needs to be addressed. It takes a lot more attention, especially as the workforce is changing more people are coming as immigrants and guest workers, and we got to develop new strategies''.
Athena reiterated that the traditional way of reaching rural and farming populations through the newspaper or extension might not be the best strategy for these workers. These changing demographics of the workforce include many workers who are new to agriculture, who may have never worked in ag previously, who don't have any access to language and culturally appropriate material about health and safety, and may not get any training from their employer. Additionally, a substantial number of these workers work long hours with no protection. This, unfortunately, leads to injuries and safety issues in agriculture.
From her years of work with migrant farmworkers, Athena’s team has found high rates of depression. She said: “As you can imagine leaving your family and everything you had to come to a strange place where you don't understand the people and when you go to the store people look at you differently is extremely challenging. Those things take a toll on people’s well-being.” These mental health issues may lead to other problems such as fatigue, substance abuse, and bad eating habits. In short, if we want to secure the food supply, we have to secure the health and well-being of these workers.
A workforce that represents EVERYONE
Athena believes it critical to have more people who look like us, think like us, speak like us, and understand the diversity of the workforce, especially in relation to farmworker health. There is a need to have more people who can actually bring the culture, the language, the understanding of the lifestyle into the challenges that their community faces. She shares that if we don't have an academic workforce that represents marginalized groups, we will not be able to meet the end goal of improving people's lives.
Feeling fulfilled outside of work.
Athena’s passion is figure skating! She is a competitive figure skater, so she usually wakes up at 4 am to go to the ice-skating rink. She competes regionally with other adults and has gone to adult nationals twice. Dr. Ramos got 2nd place in 2015 and took 3rd in 2017 in her age category and division. She disclosed, “I love skating. I love the athletic challenge of it, and my coach is excellent. This is my time to always be present on the ice. It is a tool and skill that I can use in other times and other parts of life as well.”
Bold advice for bold people
Dr. Ramos voices not to worry if your path changes and to use your values to guide yourself where you want to go. Whether tobacco, farmworker issues, or organizing issues, Athena’s North Star has been her passion for working with and helping her community. “As a young person coming into the field, you may think something today, and three years from now, it may not be what you want to do, and that's okay.”
Another piece of Ramos’s advice is not to limit yourself. “There's a lot of people out there saying you’re a woman; you’re Latina, you can't. Don't listen to them; only you know what you are capable of. Allow yourself the opportunity to grow and to flourish and to find people who are going to support you in accomplishing your mission.”
Thank you for this inspiring interview, Dr. Ramos!
Athena’s personalized list of resources:
NIOSH Ag Safety Centers
Wand to reach out or learn more?
Phone: (402) 559-2095
Tedtalk: Speaking to make a difference