Stanford Program Empowers Next Generation of Public Health Experts
The School of Medicine's AHEaD program provides training and experience in population health research for college students who are from underrepresented and historically excluded groups in the health sciences. This summer's co-director Sherri Rose, an associate professor of health policy, says the program is intended to empower students from underrepresented populations.
Stephanie Perez is the daughter of immigrants who grew up the southern California city of Compton, where nearly 20% of the population lives in poverty. She witnessed firsthand what poor health does to a community — and how that community can be ignored.
“Public health was one of the first frameworks through which I was able to understand why my community and I had experienced certain health disparities,” said Perez, who graduated from UCLA last spring, majoring in international development and double minors in global health and global studies. “More importantly, it also provided a glimpse into what solutions are possible.”
The first-generation college grad intends to become both a dentist and public health researcher.
“There are so many socioeconomic and systemic aspects to oral disease burden that epidemiology can help us address, and I would love to be a part of the solutions,” she said.
“The summer program aims to foster a supportive environment where college students can explore the core foundations of population health sciences in an inclusive academic environment,” said Lesley Park, the associate director of education at the Center for Population Health Sciences who co-directed the summer program.
Students worked on projects ranging from improving health equity for health care payments to environmental causes of social inequities in addressing food insecurity.
“The program helped me build quantitative competencies, work with fantastic faculty, and make friendships with students who are interested in a wide variety of public health issues,” Perez said. “I am now so much better prepared for my future.”
Sherri Rose, an associate professor of health policy who co-directed AHEaD this summer, said comments like those are what the program is all about.
“It was incredibly rewarding to hear from students about how this program not only helped them sharpen their areas of interest within population health — but also empowered them to pursue these goals,” Rose said.
The summer was intense. Perez worked on a research project on algorithmic fairness in the Medicare insurance risk-adjustment formula. The current formulas can lead to insurer under-compensation for minoritized racial and ethnic groups, which creates incentives for insurers not to enroll minority patients.
“Although this project involved a steep learning curve when it came to learning about U.S. health infrastructure and statistical analysis, I chose it because of the direct impact that this type of research can have in informing policy — as prevention and equity does not just begin in the clinic,” Perez said. “Since my own interests lie in oral health care access for vulnerable populations, working with Dr. Rose showed me that policy research is a powerful tool.”
The summer program is sponsored by the Department of Epidemiology and Population Health, the Center for Population Health Sciences, the Office of Community Engagement, Stanford Health Policy, and Burroughs Wellcome Fund.
Justin Naidu is in his fifth year as an undergrad at the University of California, Merced, with a double major in sociology and public health.
“Being a first-generation college student, I found it challenging to consider a career in the health field since I experience a lot of imposter syndrome,” Naidu said. “I didn't have somebody to look up to as a role model who was in the field.”
He found those role models in his peers and faculty mentor, Patricia Rodriguez Espinosa, a clinical psychologist and associate director of research for the Office of Community Engagement at Stanford Medicine. They worked on a project to study the key facilitators and barriers to cancer care among the Bay Area Hispanic communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“One of the key factors that sparked my interest in this particular topic was my awareness of how the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the institutional and systemic injustices that communities of color face,” Naidu said. “I was interested in finding out more about the effects on specific demographics, such as the Latinx community. The majority of the study's participants were foreign-born, which paralleled my own background as an immigrant.”
Naidu said the community engagement course taught by Espinosa and Lisa Goldman Rosas, an assistant professor of epidemiology and population health and of medicine as well as co-director of AHEaD, was his favorite.
“I learned the significance of including a community's lived experiences in research, and I aim to use this lesson in my prospective work in public health,” he said.
Park noted that coursework in the field of population health science is frequently not offered nor readily accessible at the college level.
“And, unfortunately, population health internships are often unpaid, making internships in this field a privilege that is disproportionately experienced,” she said. “Our goal is to spark student interest for a career in this field at an earlier stage in the pathway.”
Park said they had 600 applicants for this summer’s program. Michelle Odden and David Rehkopf, both associate professors of epidemiology and population health, are also co-directors of AHEaD.
“We have a small cohort size because a key component of our summer program is the mentored research experience,” she said. “We have an incredibly dedicated group of faculty and near peer mentors who spend the summer working closely with the scholars and support their research training and development.”
Applications for the 2023 cohort of AHEaD will open later this fall.