Date September 20, 2023
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Alice Im: Called to advance public health and well-being through community engagement

Opportunities through Brown’s Swearer Center and the Brown-Tougaloo partnership ignited the Brown senior’s passion for engaged community research and a focus on advancing public health.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Community engagement has been a constant for Alice Im, from a young age.

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Im would accompany her mother to volunteer at a center that provided health education, wellness groups and other support programs for Asian American adults in the community. Over many years, witnessing her mother’s devotion to volunteer work and the power of listening to people, Im knew she wanted to apply her energy and skills to help confront community needs and challenges. 

“It made me excited about getting involved in the community, too, even when I was pretty little,” Im said. 

By high school, Im had become a competitive swimmer, and she decided to use her talents to launch a series of free clinics for students from low-income families who were unable to afford swimming lessons. 

“It was really rewarding to watch the students find the same joy in swimming that I had gotten,” she said. 

Now a senior at Brown University, Im has woven the threads of community engagement throughout her education. And in turn, those experiences at Brown have shaped — and altered — her own trajectory.

“Coming into Brown, I always knew that public service was something I wanted to incorporate into my education,” Im said. 

Since her first year on campus, she has participated in the Swearer Center’s Bonner Community Fellowship. Through the four-year program, Im worked with the Providence-based nonprofit Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education (CYCLE), collaborating with parents and students to advance educational equity in the city. 

That experience introduced her to the concept of community-engaged research, which elevates input from the communities directly impacted by the research and its outcomes. It’s based on the understanding that researchers and impacted communities are partners throughout the process. 

“Before that, I had this idea of research always taking place in a lab, with a white coat, and being very science- and data-driven,” she said. “While it was interesting, I wasn’t particularly attracted to it. But with CYCLE, I saw how I could create change firsthand through research.” 

Originally a pre-med student, Im’s work as a Bonner Fellow inspired her to change course, particularly after an experience her sophomore year at Tougaloo College, a historically Black college in Mississippi with which Brown has an enduring 59-year partnership that has connected generations of students, faculty and staff from both institutions through academic exchanges, fellowships, research projects and other initiatives.

The weeklong trip to Tougaloo with her Bonner cohort gave her newfound perspective on the history of the Civil Rights Movement, an opportunity to engage with members of the Tougaloo community, an expanded lens on how impactful policy work can be for communities, and a chance to hear from a variety of people working in advocacy and careers in the common good. 

Through these experiences, and the exploration enabled by the University’s innovative Open Curriculum, Im began investigating the ways community-engaged research can help shape public policy and advance public health. 

“Medicine is awesome, and individual patient interactions are important, but I liked how policy work would allow me to look at problems from a bigger perspective,” Im said. 

Harnessing policy to promote science, health and education 

Further deepening her engagement with policy work, Im enrolled in the Brown in Washington semester internship program, spending Fall 2022 in Washington as an intern at the White House Office of Science, Technology and Policy. 

She worked closely with government officials on policy issues, including an AI Bill of Rights and policy drafts related to artificial intelligence regulation and infrastructure legislation. Learning about AI was a new discipline for Im, and she was grateful for the opportunity to meet others working in the AI civil rights space. 

“It was really interesting to see how we can balance different science fields to make policy more effective,” Im said. 

She even had the chance to try her hand at helping to write a policy draft centered on a notice of funding opportunity as part of the Inflation Reduction Act, and after participating in a STEM summit, she said was inspired by the White House's efforts to bring community engagement to policymaking.

I want to take the experience I’ve gained through all these opportunities to make a broad social impact. Emphasizing community voices is essential for impactful policy.

Alice Im Class of 2024
Alice Im smiles in conversation

“That event was really cool because it merged my interest in science, health and education policy,” she said. “I was able to hear from community members about their experiences of inequities within STEM fields.”

Now a senior concentrating in science, technology and society, Im is eyeing a career in the field of health care policy. During her final year at Brown, she is working on the World Health Organization's pandemic treaty as an intern for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Global Affairs — and she is assisting with two grant-funded research projects that embody the type of work she’d like to pursue. 

As the only undergraduate member of the Providence/Boston CFAR Community Engaged Research Council, Im is also helping Boston University Associate Professor Kaku So-Armah to analyze data collected last year in Ghana about community attitudes toward mental health diagnoses and treatment. 

And at Brown, she’s working with Professor of Medicine Timothy Flanigan and Assistant Professor of Medicine Martha Sanchez to further develop academic partnerships with Rhode Island College. Im is helping to investigate whether there are mutually beneficial ways for RIC students to make use of Brown scholarly resources and collaborate on research to diversify Rhode Island’s community of medicine and health science researchers.

Im hopes the experiences will further catalyze her journey — which has already been marked by a rich array of community engagement — as she explores possibilities after graduation in Spring 2024.

“I want to take the experience I’ve gained through all these opportunities to make a broad social impact,” Im said. “Emphasizing community voices is essential for impactful policy.”