As a Hassenfeld Summer Scholar, Kaley O’Connor saw firsthand the barriers that low-income families face in Rhode Island every day. Working with the Healthy Weight, Nutrition and Fitness Initiative, O’Connor helped recruit participants for a study examining the outcomes of children who attended summer campus versus those who did not.
“It was eye opening to see how challenging it is to do research like this where you’re enrolling people and trying to keep them involved all the way to the end. We gave phones to some families who didn’t even own phones,” O’Connor said.
A Rhode Island native, O'Connor intended to study biological sciences at Brown, but she changed her mind after attending a lecture by the Hassenfeld Institute’s director, Dr. Patrick Vivier, in the spring of 2017.
“I had always had an interest in nutrition and weight outcomes, so when the Hassenfeld Summer Scholars program came around, it was one of my primary interests,” O’Connor said.
As a Summer Scholar, O’Connor worked closely with Elissa Jelalian, Ph.D., who is a leader of the Healthy Weight initiative, and Whitney Evans, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior. Dr. Jelalian is also associate director of the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center at The Miriam Hospital.
The study, a pilot program conducted in the Boys and Girls Club in Newport, gave O'Connor the community-based, hands-on experience she was looking for. One of her most vivid memories as a Hassenfeld Summer Scholar is trying to engage families at a local park to get them to enroll in the study.
“We worked with some of the important, special people in the community who had the trust of some of the families in the neighborhood. It was real boots-on-the-ground community work,” O’Connor said.
Her experience as a summer scholar inspired her honors thesis, which evaluated the connection between food insecurity and summer weight gain. Dr. Evans served as O’Connor’s primary thesis advisor for her systematic review on summer food insecurity and excess summer weight gain in school-age children. They are currently working toward publication of the manuscript.
“She’s been one of my biggest mentors,” O'Connor said of Dr. Evans.
O'Connor, who graduated from Brown in 2019, now works as a finance and operations associate for Long Island Jewish Valley Stream, a small community hospital in Valley Stream, New York. Her decision to take a job there was influenced in part by her experience in the Summer Scholars program.
“My foundation in public health and child and maternal health from the Hassenfeld program influences my work heavily,” O’Connor said.
Long Island Jewish Valley Stream prioritizes the care of the local community, which has a high rate of food insecurity. Its Food As Health Program allows patients to get prescriptions for fresh food and to come back to the hospital for fresh food if they need it.
“It’s something that drew me here. At a large hospital, you’re not necessarily taking care of the people who live down the street,” O’Connor said.
O’Connor said she would definitely recommend the Summer Scholars program to other students, adding that it was “an amazing experience."
“I didn’t expect to come out of [the program] with a mentor and thesis topic," O'Connor said. "It was super valuable."