This summer, David Rehkopf, a social epidemiologist at Stanford Medicine, invited two undergraduate students to join his research project on the long-term health effects of the New Deal, a series of programs and projects instituted during the Great Depression.

From top left, Lesley Park, David Rehkopf, Lanae Notah, Charles Yellow Horse, Kayla Kinsler and Lee Romaker (Image credit: Ethan Yang; Glenda Estioko; courtesy Lanae Notah; courtesy Charles Yellow Horse; courtesy Kayla Kinsler; courtesy Lee Romaker)

Rehkopf served as a mentor to the young scholars – Lee Romaker, a rising junior at Tufts University in Massachusetts, and Charles Yellow Horse, a senior at Arizona State University – through the new Advancing Health Equity and Diversity (AHEaD) program.

Romaker and Yellow Horse were among the 12 students selected as the first cohort of the summer program, which provides training and experience in population health research to college students who are from groups that are underrepresented in the field.

The students took courses in population and public health, research study design, statistics, statistical programming and community engagement. Each student worked with a faculty mentor to design and carry out a research project. At the end of the eight-week program, the students shared their findings during virtual research talks.

“We wanted to show the students what it is like on a daily basis to do population health research and why we have a passion for it, so they can see if it is a path they want to take,” said Rehkopf, an associate professor of medicine and of epidemiology and population health. “We don’t want lack of knowledge, exposure or access to be a barrier to becoming an academic researcher.”

Diversity of experience allows better science

Rehkopf, co-director of the Stanford Center for Population Health Sciences, said AHEaD was designed to contribute to addressing the lack of diversity in population health sciences.

It is a particularly important goal, he said, given the field’s emphasis on health equity – the principle underlying the commitment to achieve the highest possible standard of health for everyone, especially those at greatest risk for poor health based on social conditions.

The program’s first cohort, selected from more than 1,000 applicants, were from different regions of the U.S. and included recent graduates, current university students and one community college student.

During the program, Rehkopf experienced first-hand the value that scholars with a diversity of experiences bring to population health research.

“Both Lee Romaker and Charles Yellow Horse brought ideas and knowledge to the project that I just didn’t have and never really could have, because of my own limited experiences – and all of this is essential to doing better research,” he said.

“At the end of the day, they brought things to the project that allowed us to do better science. For example, Charles had a lot of knowledge of Native American Tribes in the Southwest that were critical to thinking about our statistical matching approach, and Lee is a Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies major so brought a lot of important theory to his project.”

A common goal

Lee Romaker, who Zoomed into the program from his home near Boston, sought answers to three questions in his research project:

  • How did the New Deal impact women and women’s labor specifically?
  • What impact did changes to women’s labor have on community health?
  • Were increases in women’s employment due to the New Deal program associated with decreases in infant mortality?

“The project gave me coding skills and analytical research experience that will help me investigate the impacts of government policy on community health in the future,” said Romaker, who hopes to conduct research on issues related to transgender health. “I also gained experience conducting research that puts health outcomes into a historical context, which is always important when researching communities you are not a part of.”

Romaker said he particularly appreciated being part of a tight-knit research cohort.

“Whether it was the AHEaD staff or my fellow scholars, everyone was passionate about helping one another learn,” he said. “We all shared the common goal of closing health disparities and increasing health equity, which shone throughout the program.”

A sense of belonging in the field

Charles Yellow Horse, an Air Force veteran who grew up on a Navajo reservation, said the program helped him better understand the research process, improve his research skills and decide to pursue a graduate degree in public health.

“It also helped me to be more self-confident that my voice matters and that I belong in the field of health sciences,” said Yellow Horse, whose research project was titled, A Retrospective Review of the Health Outcomes the “Indian New Deal” had on Tribal Nations of the Continental Southwest (Arizona and New Mexico).

Yellow Horse said Rehkopf took his experience and knowledge of Native American peoples to heart in framing his research project and study question.

“His genuine interest in and respect for my lived experience as an important form of knowledge allowed us to collaborate very organically and to make significant progress in our project within the short eight weeks of the program,” he said.

Access to diverse experts

Kayla Kinsler, who will begin a master’s program in public health at Brown University in the fall, said the program heightened her interest in epidemiology – the methods and tools researchers use to track and identify causes of health problems and outcomes.

“I learned that epidemiology can be used to study the maternal mortality rate among Black women – a current interest of mine – and any other health disparities I may want to study in the future, so I’ve decided to concentrate on epidemiology in graduate school,” she said.

One of her favorite parts of the program was weekly “coffee chats” with special guests.

The roster of special guests featured people from academia, government and industry, including Stanford Medicine, the Santa Clara County Public Health Department and Twitter.

Lesley Park, associate director of education at the Center for Population Health Sciences, said the speakers were chosen to reflect a wide variety of backgrounds and interests.

“We invited speakers who themselves would have been eligible for the program when they were in college, with the hope that these informal conversations would inspire our scholars and allow them to see reflections of their own diverse backgrounds,” she said.

The power of statistical computing

At her research talk, Lanae Notah said hello and introduced herself in the traditional Navajo way, saying “Yá’át ééh, Shí éí Lanae Notah,” and sharing the names of her four clans.

Notah, a senior at New Mexico State University, also shared her excitement about learning and using RStudio – a software environment for statistical computing and graphics – for her project, Quantifying the Impact of Wildfires.

“I never thought about how epidemiologists and researchers created charts and graphs from their data,” she said. “Holy cow – now I know. Something about RStudio really intrigues me. I know I still have a lot more to learn, but I’m very interested in it.”

Notah enjoyed working with her mentor, Mathew Kiang, an instructor in epidemiology and population health, and other people she met through the program.

“I gained not one, but several mentors who provided so much insight and support that made me feel like I’ll always have them to turn to throughout my education,” she said.

The co-sponsors of the AHEaD program are the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, the Center for Population Health Sciences, the Office of Community Engagement and the new Department of Health Policy. Visit the AHEaD website for more information.