Student public health researchers focus on community needs, concerns in areas they are studying

National Public Health Week offered students at Brown’s School of Public Health the opportunity to discuss how their research projects were designed to center communities.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Every year in April, Brown celebrates National Public Health Week with opportunities that highlight the impact of the University’s public health researchers. This year, the week includes special episodes of School of Public Health’s “Humans in Public Health” podcast, a conversation with Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy coordinator for the White House national mpox response, and Public Health Research Day, a festive and inclusive poster conference — all aligned with the national theme of Centering and Celebrating Cultures in Health.

Nearly 150 researchers presented during the poster conference, more than double the number in 2022. Undergraduate, master’s, Ph.D. and post-doctoral students gathered in Alumnae Hall to discuss research topics that ranged from health inequities to the impact of climate on health to the benefits of harm reduction approaches.

The session is considered the week’s flagship event, said Jennifer Tidey, associate dean for research at SPH.

Public Health Research Day is our opportunity to celebrate the research that our undergraduate, master's and doctoral students are undertaking at the School of Public Health in a wide variety of important areas,” Tidey said. “We are thrilled to recognize the dedication of our students, trainees, faculty, staff and Rhode Island Department of Health partners to enhancing public health practices locally, nationally and internationally.”

The conference also gives students practice communicating the significance of their work to non-scientists — a skill that Tidey said is critical to the practice of public health.

Along with awards for outstanding undergraduate, master’s and doctoral research posters, SPH offered a new award for the student research poster that demonstrated significant efforts to center the needs and concerns of the community being studied. This was judged by guests from Rhode Island community organizations and community-based research staff from SPH. All awards will be announced on April 17. 

“Students often choose research topics that are personal to them, so they learn about the process of doing research in a community they belong to,” said Jesse Yedinak, assistant dean of education at SPH. “Others are able to share what they learned through building relationships with a diversity of communities and cultures. When students design a study in partnership with a community, they understand the strengths and history of the community, not just the barriers or negative health issues.”

Here's what five School of Public Health students shared about their research projects and the communities involved:

Suraya Ortiz

Class of 2023 undergraduate concentrating in public health

Project: Can Mindfulness-Based Interventions treat PTSD-derived G.I. Disruptions in Black Women?

“I had an understanding from my own experience, and also knowledge of society, that there is a strong historical context of racism in the United States. This directly sets someone up for a lifelong journey of trauma, anxiety and stress.

“I chose to focus on Black women in particular because not only do they often go through race-based trauma, but also gender-based violence, so they face dual oppression, which makes them a really important group to target when it comes to health disparities. There are a lot of cases of PTSD among Black women. And then there's a strong association between psychological trauma and gastrointestinal disease. But there's no literature that pieces it all together, including mindfulness as a treatment. So I thought this is a major gap that we can fill.

“As you see in my conclusion, culturally competent care is really important. One of my papers was looking at how we can further tailor mindfulness towards Black individuals — making comparisons to religion in the Black community, involving African American instructors, offering culturally appropriate music and finding other ways to further encourage this practice and also build trust within the health profession.”

Jasper Yeh

Class of 2023 undergraduate concentrating in public health

Project: Teen and Parent Perceptions of Opioid and Non-Opioid Analgesic Use After Wisdom Tooth Extraction Surgery

“I've been working with Melissa Pielech, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and she's doing a study where she's developing an intervention to give to adolescents before wisdom tooth extraction. A lot of teens are prescribed opioids after wisdom tooth extraction, and that can increase the risk of future substance abuse disorder, so we want to develop a 75- to 90-minute intervention to give teens before surgery to educate them on safe practices when using prescription opioids, or maybe other strategies for managing pain.

 “This poster is focused on teen and parent perspectives on receiving opioid prescriptions after a wisdom tooth extraction visit. We found that both teens and parents generally had really negative attitude toward receiving opioid prescriptions. Teens, interestingly, were often irrationally fearful of prescription opioids. Parents were also apprehensive, but they had a more qualified and balanced perspective where they expressed things like, ‘I wouldn’t prefer it, but if my teen needed it, I would have it there as a backup.’

“This is really important because it shows that both teens and parents are really interested in learning about non-opioid pain strategy, even non-medication pain strategies. That could shape our interventions as well as future education on how to manage pain after wisdom tooth extraction.”

Grace Reed

Class of 2023 graduate student in Master of Public Health program

Project: Perceptions of End-of-Life Care Quality in Assisted Living: A Qualitative Study of Bereaved Next of Kin

“I’m passionate about this topic because I have personal experience dealing with end-of-life care with family members. I really wanted to be able to explore the factors that are common among all of these people —­ the bereaved next of kin involved in caregiving — and regarded as important, and study how we can think about improving the quality of end-of-life care by focusing on these things.

“For example: pretty much everyone in the study emphasized the importance of staff being available and communicative. Lack of availability and poor staff communication was an indicator of bad quality of care, whereas good communication and staff that were engaged and available were indicators of higher quality. So we think that this can point us toward potential solutions. Increasing staffing is obviously a problem across the board with health care, but another idea could be to prioritize new strategies to keep family members informed even if there are mistakes in care. People want know what is going on to be able to make informed decisions about what's next in the care process.

“Emmanuelle Belanger, my primary thesis advisor, specializes in end-of-life and palliative care research specifically with a mixed methods focus, both qualitative and quantitative. When I saw her work, I was like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I want to do.’ Because I wanted to use my experience for the greater good.”

Jeremiah O. Zablon

Class of 2023 graduate student in Master of Public Health program

Project: The Effect of Climate Parameters and Spatial Analysis of Mosquitoes in Malaria Prevalence in Kenya

“The reason I did this project, and the reason I came to do public health, is because one of my grandparents almost died of malaria, and I know other people in Kenya who also almost died of malaria. I wanted to do a project that has a huge impact on people back in my community.

“I worked on this issue before I came to Brown, but I realized the gaps in the knowledge I’ve acquired. While we can do surveillance, for example, there are some aspects of information that are missing, and that are needed in order to have a coordinated way of addressing and then implementing the intervention.

“Learning about geographic information systems has been really great, and helped me come up with new insights. The patterns of the mosquitos which are spreading malaria is changing, and we have noticed a unique trend where places that didn't have high prevalence of malaria now have higher prevalence of malaria.

“I'm working with Will Goedel and Jeff Bailey at the School of Public Health. Even though he’s based at Brown, Jeff Bailey does malaria research in my country. We connected and are helping each other achieve our research goals.”

Katia Jackson

Class of 2023 graduate student in Master of Public Health program

Project: Using GIS to Explore Food Access in a Racially and Ethnically Diverse Neighborhood in Providence, R.I.

“I did an applied public health experience with the Sankofa Initiative, a program of the West Elmwood Housing Development Corporation in Providence. One of the projects that they wanted to do was to look at culturally appropriate food access for their community residents.

“We developed a survey that would look at different issues around food access and offered it to community members at a local farmer’s market. We were able to collect information from around 76 residents who live in the 02907 zip code.

“We found that more residents are traveling outside of their neighborhood to buy their food. We asked about barriers that made it difficult for them to buy fruit and vegetables in West End and learned that the top barrier was cost. In the survey, people told us that they were usually driving cars to grocery stores. When we asked if they were able to find culturally appropriate foods, over 80% said they were.

“A recommendation that I have is for Sankofa to do a further observation of the grocery stores where the community members say they are shopping, and to learn more about the types of produce people are looking for given that they said they are finding them at the places they shop at outside of their neighborhood. The goal would be to find out if there’s a way for shoppers to find what they want and need at stores closer to where they live.”