Reconsidering Medicine - Delving into Research

    • July 30, 2012

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.

A path to public health. Karen Hidalgo was born in Costa Rica and moved to the United States when she was five years old. She grew up in New Jersey but her mother, a single parent, never let her forget her first language. They spoke only Spanish at home, and Karen was expected to read Spanish books. “Now it is a great advantage to speak both languages,” says Hidalgo, “especially with the growth in the Spanish-speaking population.”

Hidalgo was the first person in her family to go to college. “Education was a must. It was not a question or a choice. You had to go to college.” She decided to stay local and entered Rutgers University in 2006. At the time, Hidalgo very much wanted to become a doctor. She had worked as a medical interpreter at a local health clinic and was a volunteer at a hospital in Newark, N.J., while in high school. She interacted with many doctors in those settings and loved it.

But Hidalgo began to learn about other health career options while at Rutgers, taking courses in the life sciences and health systems. She chose public health as her college major while she took the medical school prerequisites. Mentors in the Educational Opportunity Fund Office at Rutgers, a support program for first-generation college students, introduced Hidalgo to the McNair Scholars Program, which involved her in research, and also to Project L/EARN, a summer research internship.

Hidalgo applied to Project L/EARN for the summer after her sophomore year but did not make it. She reapplied the next year and was accepted. “I had the experience from McNair and worked hard, improved my resume, and my experiences,” she says. “They saw my tenacity and that I really wanted to be part of Project L/EARN.” Hidalgo was looking to be challenged and to learn about what a PhD involved. She was intrigued with the research process and wanted exposure to it.

An intense experience. Project L/EARN was intense. The interns learned about statistical analysis and “wrote papers at 3:00 in the morning,” Hidalgo remembers. “We were together 24/7 and had to learn to resolve conflicts and work together. We were pushed to the limit, and I came to understand that you always have to respect others and give it your best.” Hidalgo’s peers voted her the 2009 Peter J. Guarnaccia Intern of the Year based on her dedication, passion, tenacity, and work ethic.

Hidalgo worked with her mentor, Karen T. D’Alonzo, PhD, MSN, in the College of Nursing at Rutgers, researching how acculturation and marianismo beliefs impact obesity risk among Latinas. Marianismo refers to a code of behavior among some Latinas that dictates that a woman should be a selfless mother and wife above all else. “It was great,” says Hidalgo. “I learned a lot about physical activity and educating mothers about different types of exercises.” The analysis was challenging, particularly because the dataset was small. But, she says, “I worked with what I had and learned to appreciate the research process.”

A component of the program that had a special impact on Hidalgo was the group’s attendance at the AcademyHealth conference in Chicago. Before the conference a Project L/EARN alum gave a class on networking: how to dress, how to shake someone’s hand, how to give a one-minute “elevator speech,” and so on. The interns were given business cards to use. Once at the conference “we were able to network with different researchers,” she says. “I was fascinated by the whole research process. I admired the researchers who spoke so eloquently. I thought that I wanted to do that one day. It motivated me to want to get that exposure that I had not gotten, to keep excelling, and not give up on this goal.”

A dual degree steers the course. After graduating from Rutgers in 2010, Hidalgo entered a dual Master of Social Work/Master of Public Health degree program at Washington University in St. Louis, which she learned about at the AcademyHealth conference’s career fair. “Project L/EARN definitely made me stand out in the applicant pool,” she believes. “It is such a competitive school and I had no study-abroad experience, but I had been so exposed to the whole research process and had a paper completed, even though it wasn’t published.”

Hidalgo chose the dual degree program because she was passionate about issues that involve social work. “I am interested in the underlying issues in research (for example, the domestic violence that some of our Latina study subjects experienced) that we are aware of but can’t report because they are not within the scope of the study. So I thought: Why not social work?”

Her first year of graduate school focused on social work classes and a concentration on gerontology—“we’re getting older and living longer,” she says, “so there is going to be a demand for gerontology.” The second year has been dedicated to public health. The program devotes significant time to internships and other practical experiences.

During the summer of 2012, Hidalgo is working in Brazil in a program called Project GUIA (Guide for Useful Interventions for Physical Activity in Brazil and Latin America). It is a transdisciplinary collaboration with people from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Ministry of Health in Brazil, and several universities, all engaged in developing strategies to increase physical activity. “I feel I owe my acceptance to Project L/EARN,” says Hidalgo. “They were looking for someone who had physical activity research experience, and a plethora of applicants had that experience. While I never had a course specific to exercise and kinesiology, the topic of my Project L/EARN paper matched really well with this.”

Future plans. After completing her MSW/MPH program, Hidalgo would like to work for a few years before starting on her PhD. “Ideally I would like to work for the CDC,” she says. “It is a world-renowned institute and the field of public health is constantly growing thanks to the CDC.” She hopes her experience in Brazil will be attractive when applying for a job there when she graduates in 2013.

Ultimately, she wants to work at a research institution. But, she says, “I still need to gain a lot from experiences. I am just getting my feet wet.”

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, well-qualified, 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.