The problem. Many undergraduate students know little about career opportunities in health services research. In particular, students from racial and ethnic minority groups, low-income families and/or those who are first-generation college students—who do not have family experience to draw upon—may not be familiar with graduate programs leading to health-related research careers, i.e., what academic prerequisites are needed, how to select a graduate school, and how the graduate school admissions process works. They are unlikely to picture themselves as researchers, even though they may have a strong interest in a health-related career.
An intern in the making. Nicole DePasquale did not enjoy high school very much and did not think a four-year university would be better for her than the local community college. Her mother, however, wanted to see her daughter have the education that she never had and pushed Nicole to apply to Rutgers University, not far from her home in Toms River, N.J. At Rutgers, DePasquale chose communication as her major after taking an introductory course on a whim. She added minors in psychology and sociology as she explored the university’s course offerings. “It was a very random process,” she says, “but it worked out.”
DePasquale loved Rutgers. Her professors were inspiring and “made me want to come to class every day.” She knew she wanted to stay in school and pursue a research career. But she knew little about how graduate school admissions worked—although she had heard that doing an internship before applying was a good idea. Most internships, however, seemed to be for people in the hard sciences—until she saw a flier about Rutgers’ Project L/EARN. “I knew immediately that it would be perfect for me,” she remembers. “It was health-oriented and they took people who didn’t necessarily have a background in the hard sciences and a lot of statistical knowledge. And you actually got paid a stipend to learn! It sounded too good to be true.”
A summer of learning and research. DePasquale was accepted into the 2009 cohort at Project L/EARN, when she was a junior in college, and went right to work building her knowledge base and skills in statistics and research methods. It was demanding. In comparison to the other interns, she felt that her own baseline of knowledge in these areas was weak and that she had a lot of catching up to do. But the level of support she received from faculty and fellow interns got her through the coursework, and her comfort level with the subject matter greatly increased by the end of the summer. She decided to apply to graduate school in public health, despite a course of study that would include biostatistics, epidemiology, and similarly demanding courses. “I don’t think I would have applied to any public health program without having experienced Project L/EARN,” she says.
During the summer DePasquale worked with two Rutgers professors, her mentor Deborah Carr, PhD, and Marsha Rosenthal, PhD, to explore how family factors (such as number of children, marital status, etc.) affect the likelihood of engaging in end-of-life planning activities, such as developing a will, establishing power of attorney, or life planning, with family members. Carr, a sociologist, focuses on gerontology. DePasquale’s interest in the subject had been whetted by a course about aging taken for her psychology minor. “I hadn’t really thought about end-of-life planning before this,” she says, “but I thought it was absolutely fascinating.”
DePasquale found the support and guidance remarkable. “I met people there who I still email for advice and guidance,” she notes. “I admire Dr. Miller [Jane E. Miller, PhD, who is faculty director] and always get her advice before my next big academic move. I similarly admire the two Project L/EARN instructors [who are Project L/EARN alumni themselves]. When they were teaching us, they were both going full-time for their PhDs, they were in relationships, they were raising children. They were like super women to me. And I can still email Dr. Carr, and she will get back to me within 24 hours with amazing advice.”
Carryover to senior year and beyond. DePasquale took her first public health course in her senior year of college. “I decided after Project L/EARN that I could take on almost anything. I had a very interdisciplinary background—with communication, psychology, and sociology—but I was always drawn to the health aspect of things: health communication, mental health, things like that. Project L/EARN helped me find the courage to pursue public health.”
DePasquale graduated as salutatorian from Douglass College at Rutgers University in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. That fall she started graduate school at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Project L/EARN affirmed for me that graduate school was definitely the right step and that I was made to have a career in health-oriented research.” While at Hopkins, DePasquale’s Project L/EARN experience continued to prove valuable. “I had made binders with all the handouts and presentations from the summer,” she says. “Graduate school assumes you have all this knowledge in biostatistics, epidemiology, and so on. Project L/EARN was my first exposure to that, and it got me through graduate school.”
The future. DePasquale received her Master of Science in Public Health from Hopkins in December 2011 and has worked as a research assistant there through the summer of 2012. During this time, she had the first article on which she is the lead author accepted by Health & Social Work; it is about a social worker intervention around live kidney transplantation.
“Another article on which I am the lead author is under review, and I have several others in the works in which I am a co-author,” she says, “This was always the goal I wanted to achieve after completing Project L/EARN.”
In September 2012, she begins a doctoral program in human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. Her planned program emphasis is on prevention/intervention science along with adulthood and aging.
The doctoral program appears to be a good fit: it is very interdisciplinary and has a strong emphasis on research methodology, just as Project L/EARN. The program also offers a specialization in aging, allowing DePasquale to build on the research she conducted through Project L/EARN.
When she has completed her education, DePasquale hopes to find a position as a professor at a university. Research is a passion for her, but she also wants to teach. As a child, she was a competitive figure skater and learned to coach from her own coaches, of whom she speaks fondly. Throughout college and graduate school she has continued to coach figure skating and feels it is “my way of giving other skaters the same good experience I had.” She wants to carry this spirit to the classroom. “I would like to help other students and inspire them the way I was inspired to excel,” she says.
DePasquale remains grateful for the opportunity to participate in Project L/EARN. “To this day, everything I do is a reflection of the skills and the knowledge I obtained from that summer. It’s truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and an experience that I will never forget,” she says. “It has helped me every step of the way with graduate school. And I am taking my binders with me to Penn State—I know I will still be using that material.”
RWJF perspective. Project L/EARN is an intensive 10-week paid summer internship in health-focused social science research for undergraduate students from groups underrepresented in research. It has operated out of the Rutgers University Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research since 1991. In 2008, after 10 years of funding by the National Institute of Mental Health ended, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) awarded $2,957,826 to the institute to support Project L/EARN through May 2014.
A priority of RWJF’s Human Capital team, says RWJF Assistant Vice President for Research and Evaluation Debra J. Perez, PhD, MA, MPA, “is the support of a highly skilled, diverse health care workforce. Programs like Project L/EARN, which focus on juniors and seniors in college, provide an initial push to move these individuals along on the academic track. RWJF’s support of Project L/EARN is also an investment in the ability of the Foundation’s human capital programs (which focus on graduate-level scholars and fellows) to recruit strong, diverse leadership.”
Perez also emphasizes that “diversity, as a core value for us, is also about quality. We can’t do our work well unless we have diverse perspectives. Ensuring high quality, having impact, and being able to demonstrate social change all depend on the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Project L/EARN is clearly in line with that goal.” Read the Progress Report on Project L/EARN to learn more.