Communicating for impact: Public health students get comfortable talking about why their work matters

A poster conference during National Public Health Week offered Brown public health students the opportunity to discuss the significance of their research to the community — and to their own educational experience.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — As part of the public health community at Brown and beyond, students can find classmates, mentors and collaborators with whom they can analyze ideas and brainstorm solutions.

But part of being a leading public health professional involves being able to talk about research in public. Helping students develop and polish that skill is one of the goals of Research Day, a poster conference hosted by Brown’s School of Public Health during National Public Health Week.

“Communicating your science to people who may not be experts in your specific field is such an important skill to learn,” said Jennifer Tidey, the school’s associate dean for research. “It's a skill that we use throughout our careers, whether we're trying to obtain funding or trying to influence health practice and policy.” 

Over 70 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students as well as postdoctoral trainees gathered in Brown’s Alumnae Hall on Tuesday, April 5, to present to judges as well as anyone else whose curiosity led them into the room. The full community is invited to Research Day, where students gain valuable practice talking about their high-impact public health research. The annual event was held in person for the first time since 2019.

“When we had to do the poster session remotely, we made the best of it, but having the session in person requires students to communicate their work both visually and verbally, and to do it in an interactive way,” Tidey said. “It's more challenging, but I also think it's more fun and more rewarding for our students.”

Here's what four of the School of Public Health students had to share about their research:

Sydney Fisher

Class of 2023

Project: Evaluation of Race and Ethnicity on HPV Vaccination Initiation and Completion Among Adolescents Aged 11-17 Years

“I’m very interested in maternal-child health and infectious diseases, as well as health disparities, so this topic was a great match for me. The main goal of the study was to identify factors associated with HPV initiation and completion — mostly to determine whether there are racial or ethnic differences in vaccination initiation and completion.

“What we found in our study was that racial and ethnic minorities were actually more likely to initiate and complete the vaccine series with the exception that Black adolescents were less likely to complete the series. I found this very interesting, especially how I’ve lately been thinking about how in regard to hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine, a lot of the conversation has been geared towards Black individuals, but here we see that minorities were more likely to get vaccinated.

“Also interesting, I think, is that there are racial disparities in HPV itself and HPV-related diseases like cervical cancer. So I hope the impact of these findings will be that with those existing disparities but also the higher rates of initiation and completion of HPV vaccines, then perhaps those racial and ethnic disparities of disease could be narrowed.”

Andrew Ayers

Class of 2022

Project: Living Filters for Removing Arsenic from Drinking Water

“I took a course my sophomore year on environmental health and disease with Jessica Plavicki that looked at different contaminants and how they affect the health of the populations exposed to them. I was really interested in the advocacy that could be tied into looking at environmental exposures. And on top of that, I wanted to gain lab experience here at Brown. So I was really lucky to connect with Dr. Vicki Colvin, whose lab was doing an EPA-funded project on creating a living filter for arsenic remediation of drinking water using e. coli bacteria.

“Environmental exposure to arsenic, which can happen with contaminated well water, has been linked to lung, bladder and skin cancer. We looked to improve upon current filtration methods, which can be effective under optimal conditions in the lab and are also relatively cheap, but in practice need a lot of maintenance or require pre-treatment. In our tests, within 5 minutes, 60% of the 500 parts-per-billion of the arsenic dose was removed from the supernatant. Within an hour, practically all of it was. We want to get down to 10 parts-per-billion, or 10 micrograms per liter, which is the EPAs maximum contaminant level of arsenic. We’re actually able to remove it way below those levels.”

Briana Roberts

Master of Public Health Student

Project: Alcohol Consumption and Melanoma Risk: A Prospective Analysis from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study

“As my undergraduate advisor said, by now everyone knows the risks of smoking, but it's much harder to tell people to change their drinking habits. So I wanted to focus on increasing the awareness of cancer risk from alcohol use — especially awareness beyond the typical cancers associated with alcohol consumption like breast, liver and colon cancer. There are a lot of studies researching alcohol's influence on these cancer types already. But since alcohol affects almost every system in the body, I wanted to research the effect alcohol has on a system that hasn't been well investigated.

“I reached out to Dr. Eunyoung Cho, who was working on some awesome research between cancer incidence, specifically melanoma. I talked to her about researching alcohol use on melanoma risk, and she was really on board with this topic. In our study, we looked at alcohol consumption and different types of alcoholic beverages on melanoma risk. Some of the findings showed that there was an increased risk of melanoma among those who drink alcohol overall. What was really interesting is that there was evidence of a pretty substantial positive risk of melanoma among those who drink wine and liquor, which could be because these drinks have a higher alcohol content than beer.”

Nick Lewis

Ph.D. Student, Biostatistics

Project: Effectiveness of Vaccination in Preventing SARS-CoV-2 Reinfection

“A great thing about this project is that I’m actually getting to do concrete work that’s extremely relevant right now. Our goal for the study was to have a counterargument to the notion that, ‘If I’ve already had COVID, I have natural immunity — so why should I get the vaccine?’

“Our study is formulated to show that even if you’ve had COVID, there are still great benefits to getting the vaccine. One big one: Vaccination will cut your risk of reinfection in half. We’ve presented our results to the Rhode Island Department of Health, and with my advisor, Joseph Hogan, we’ve discussed it on the podcast, “Public Health Out Loud.” As for next steps: We’re trying to get out paper published.”