At 14, Gabino Abarca started picking fruit with his parents in eastern Washington. These days, he returns to the orchards as a University of Washington student – conducting research that aims to improve the health of thousands of agricultural workers.
“I used to do field work with a ladder and bag,” said Abarca (Class of 2018), a senior in the UW School of Public Health. “Now I do field work with a pen and paper.”
Early on, Abarca learned how hard it was to pick cherries, his first crop, in the heat of the summer. He also worked with his grandfather at a vineyard. He can’t forget the look of tired workers at the end of the day. Only later – as an undergraduate researcher – did he realize he and his co-workers had been suffering from heat-related illnesses.
Abarca majors in public health, a popular undergraduate subject that looks “upstream” at ways to improve the health of entire communities. As a student research scientist in the School’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, he’s been helping Associate Professor June Spector investigate the connection between work and heat illness, and what can be done to lessen the risks.
With his agricultural background, Abarca is poised to bridge the gap between the workers and researchers. "Seeing that my family is still involved in agriculture has made me passionate about continuing my work to develop programs to help prevent some of the health affects" among workers, he says.
His parents, he adds, are “superheroes.”
“They would work all day long and come home and my mom would still cook for us and my dad would play with us,” said Abarca, originally from Mattawa.
Now many are praising Abarca for his tireless efforts. In October, the Washington Public Health Association bestowed him with its annual Exceptional Student Award, citing his passion and efforts to improve the health of vulnerable populations.