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Revealing critical nuances in big data

Doctoral student Alberto Valido works to understand big data sets for the health and well-being of LGBTQ people of color.
Ph.D. student Alberto Valido

When you talk with Alberto Valido, a fourth-year doctoral student in the UNC School of Education’s Applied Development Science and Special Education concentration, about his research, he overflows with excitement about the possibilities of what he and his collaborators can accomplish. 

The excitement is understandable. Valido stands at the forefront of aggregating big, longitudinal data sets to gain a better understanding of mental health across the lifespan of LGBTQ people of color. The insights from this work could begin informing a number of new research avenues aimed at providing better mental health care and prevention efforts for people with intersectional identities — a most vulnerable group that sees higher rates of depression and suicidality.  

“This kind of work is very new,” said Valido. “In individual trials, there are a very small number of [LGBTQ] people [of color] to say this intervention or prevention works for them. You have to combine trials into one large data set.” 

To do this work, which forms a portion of his dissertation, Valido has been awarded a prestigious F31 Predoctoral Fellowship, which comes with $75,000 in funding, from the National Institute of Mental Health. Of the applications submitted, his was in the 4th percentile and accepted upon first submission. 

“To be accepted after the first submission is a rarity, and being in the 4th percentile, at that, is astounding,” said Dorothy Espelage, Ph.D., William C. Friday Distinguished Professor and Valido’s adviser. “But that speaks to the importance of Alberto’s work and his stature as a really promising young scholar.” 

Growing skills and networks – and as a researcher 

As the conversation continues, you also begin to understand that Valido’s excitement is also well-earned — and personal. 

He immigrated with his family from Cuba to Miami in 2010 after more than a decade of applying for a visa and being denied in what Valido called an “arduous process.” 

“I remember I came to the U.S. April 24,” he said. “I was able to enroll in high school in my junior year, knowing little to no English, coming completely off the boat.” 

So he taught himself English and graduated from high school. When he applied to college, he received little help from his family, who had navigated postsecondary education in Cuba but not in the U.S. He spent two years at Broward College and transferred to the University of Florida.  

For the first 21 years of his life, Valido says he had to be self-sufficient.  

That all changed when he took a psychology course in his last semester at Florida with Dorothy Espelage, one of the nation and world’s foremost researchers on bullying, student well-being, and school-based violence, who was in her first semester in Gainesville.  

“I dropped a computer science class, the last day I could drop [it], and signed up for Dorothy’s class,” he said with equal parts excitement and incredulity. “She had this amazing personality.” 

Near immediately, he Googled her and found her work to end bullying. Whatever career path he had considered up to this point, he reconsidered.  

Valido grew up in a small town in the middle of Cuba, a place he says is full of “machismo” and “toxic masculinity.” For him, as a gay teenager, that culture led to bullying and then to anxiety. Espelage’s lab provided a research-based avenue to work against that kind of culture. 

“I reached out to her after that first class and said, ‘I want to work for you,’” Valido remembered. “And she said ‘sure.’” 

Since that moment, Valido’s work with Espelage has resulted in a network of like-minded collaborators, focused on preventing bullying and violence, and ensuring the mental health and well-being of marginalized people. 

Valido project managed her RAVE (Research Addressing Violence in Education) Lab from 2017-2019, coordinating operations for multiple grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Justice, and the National Science Foundation. He trained, supervised, and mentored 30 undergraduate lab assistants.  

Since enrolling as a doctoral student in the Applied Developmental Science and Special Education concentration, Valido has jumped at every opportunity. He taught himself R, an open-source software used for statistical computing and graphics. He has worked with Espelage and a team of renowned scholars as part of the American Psychological Association’s Task Force on Violence Against Educators and School Personnel.  

Not yet having written his dissertation, Valido already has 53 peer-reviewed journal articles to his name. By the time of this story’s publication, he says it could be upwards of 65. 

When he had the chance to join a collaboration between Espelage and C. Hendricks Brown, a leading prevention and intervention scholar based at Northwestern University, he developed and honed skills with big data, bringing multiple data sets together and then finding ways to “harmonize” similar, yet slightly incongruous, data within them. That research is pointing the way toward his future work – integrative data analysis, or IDA. 

“Alberto is engaged in cutting-edge data analytics that he is employing to address a critical public health issue – prevention of suicide and promotion of mental health among gender and sexual minority youth,” said Espelage.  

Aggregating a “dataverse” to better understand LGBTQ youths’ mental health 

On Valido’s computer, the desktop shortcut labeled “Dataverse” leads to a folder with nearly 30 longitudinal data sets, existing individual studies previously conceived of to answer a range of research questions.  

For his work funded by the F31 Fellowship, Valido will utilize 18 data sets, data sets beyond the ones included in his “dataverse. Individually, each of those 18 studies provides reduced samples and methodological limitations, restricting researchers’ ability to understand depression and suicidality of LGBTQ people of color from a developmental perspective. But by combining those individual data sets into a single data set, IDA provides increased statistical power and the ability to study an expanded sample of underrepresented subgroups. 

Once the data are harmonized, Valido will be able to examine longitudinal trajectories of depression and suicidality among LGBTQ adolescents of color and explore overlapping age cohorts to gain a better and broader understanding of development. 

“We are looking at every intersectionality, evaluating whether these trials are effective or not for them,” he said. “Do we see movement in mental health in these specific populations and groups — sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity?” 

Understanding depression and suicide-related behaviors among LGBTQ people of color will close essential knowledge gaps in research. Valido can help to address a critically important public health concern: Increased rates of depression and suicidality among LGBTQ people of color.  

“The end goal is to have data that will help to inform intervention and suicide prevention efforts,” he said. 

According to Valido, this kind of IDA research, aggregating as many data sets as possible to reveal every possible nuance contained within, will continue to be a priority for entities like NIMH. Essentially, without beginning new longitudinal studies, it’s the only way to understand people with intersectional identities through quantitative research and to better help them now. 

“IDA is the only way we can really understand this intersectionality right now,” he said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”