Aug 4, 2017
What I’ve Done (this summer)
Working for Veterans Affairs
It’s 7am on a Tuesday, and I need to get up in 3 alarm snoozes. There’s a two-step strategy to this: first, say a really bad word to activate the limbic system of the brain (science!); second, smile, because the word “snoozed” looks funny on the phone screen.
The commute to the Bedford Veterans Affairs Medical Center, my UROP’s headquarters, takes over an hour. There is exactly one other person who gets that far with me—bus 62 is my giant UberPOOL. Except, no other public transport stops at the Bedford VA, so if I miss the right 62, it’s an hour-long wait until the next one.
The Medical Center is similar to MIT: its randomly-numbered buildings are connected by underground tunnels, and both campuses have their own police forces. MIT’s academic buildings fill 7.9 million sq. ft., and the VA’s facilities fill 7.8 million sq. ft. The biggest difference between the two: the VA is a place with mostly older men, so, at first, I felt like a trespasser wandering through the Medical Center’s tunnels. Then a nice older veteran said my blue hair was cool and “punky,” and I felt welcomed.
I never expected to work for the U.S. military. The VA didn’t expect me to work for them either. One of my mentor’s background check forms questioned, “Why would you choose a non-citizen over a citizen for this job?” The answer: “No one else volunteered.”
My task is coordinating logistics for a mentorship program for student-veterans, created by the Bedford VA, a national leader in supporting the higher education of veterans, in collaboration with Bowie State University, Maryland’s oldest historically black university. Next week, my mentor and I will travel to Maryland for the program mentors’ training—my first work trip and solo hotel stay. For now, I’m struggling to coordinate communications between people in four different locations, plus preparing training materials. I’ve discovered that multiple small tasks are more taxing on the brain than several larger projects.
The main VA job benefit is a look at an off-campus world. I’d known that the Institute was a sheltered bubble, but didn’t realize just how ignorant I was about outside institutions. There are very few older students at MIT, with those who are usually returning after medical leave. This is despite the fact that 74% of current U.S. post-secondary students come from non-traditional backgrounds (e.g. returning veterans, single mothers, or part-time students). The difference such a student population creates is stark: during one work meeting, a VA psychologist talked about her heartbreaking and uplifting experiences with local student-veterans, and they were unlike any I’ve heard.
We are extremely fortunate at MIT to have many easily accessible resources for academic, personal, and financial help. The Institute promises to help incoming freshmen through anything, but the freshmen are generally teenagers under 20 who don’t have to worry about their children or combat fatigue. Can the Institute’s environment be conducive to people with non-young adult problems? According to The New York Times article on “Why College Rankings Are a Joke,” MIT is ranked second on the list of best colleges for veterans. However, the Institute has only eleven U.S. student-veterans among its undergraduates.
There’s also the wealth gap. The BSU/VA mentorship program could easily be implemented by MIT: there’s certainly enough funding. The Institute has a 13 billion dollar endowment, and what a difference a 570-fold increase in college funding makes! MIT’s program coordinators would never have to worry about, say, classroom supplies or printing costs. Here, we can automatically assume an abundance of resources.
An “Introduction to Life outside the Bubble” should be an MIT requirement, or at least a mandatory Freshman Orientation event. We are disastrously unprepared for a world of complex experiences. And, even worse, it’s not something we ever have to prepare for—I’ve talked to alums who have been in the bubble for 30 years, and I, too, will likely retreat to the bubble in the fall. For now, I listen and learn. And explore new tunnels while I'm at it.
Investigating the Reproductive Health of Sexual Minorities
My second UROP is in the hospital-dense Boston area across the river, near the palace grounds of Harvard Medical School. I work with a Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Med School research team that investigates the reproductive health of sexual minorities—another amazing off-campus opportunity. As a bonus, I got an HMS library card for work and now have the power of access to the world's best research.
-- Why this UROP? → This spring, I took a course on epidemiology and public health, taught by the research team’s leader, and wanted to learn more. Public health is a relatively new field, so it’s a great time to join. Plus, I’ve been interested in reproductive health specifically since working at Planned Parenthood, and research on minority populations is especially lacking.
-- What is public health? → “While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.” (from the American Public Health Association)
-- Who are sexual minorities? → This is an umbrella term for a “group whose sexual identity, orientation or practices differ from the majority of the surrounding society. Usually, sexual minorities comprise of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.” (source)
Project 1: SexuaL Orientation and Pregnancy in tEens (SLOPE) Study
SLOPE is a study on teenage (< 20 y.o.) pregnancy among sexual minorities of all genders, and I’m helping with recruitment. We’re looking for twenty women and men involved in a teen pregnancy to interview, and finding the men has been especially challenging (know someone who fits the profile?). This week, I’m planning to contact local churches to post flyers. I am also allowed to log UROP hours for recruiting at informal LGBTQ socials and venues (e.g. clubs). This is possibly the coolest UROP ever!
But why investigate pregnancy in LGBTQ populations? Sexual minority people are actually involved in pregnancies as teens at a rate twice as high as cis/hetero folks. Separated by sub-groups, it's 1.6 times higher for lesbian women, 5 times higher for bisexual women, and also higher for non-cis people and non-straight men. That's a really significant difference from a public health standpoint, where finding a 1.3-times (or 30%) increase in something is already a reason for intervention.
We're not really sure why the teen pregnancy rates are that high. Some hypotheses are: trying to pass as straight, less likely to use birth control, bullying, sexual abuse, etc. But researchers have not talked to the LGBTQ people involved. That's what this project is for.
Qualitative studies like SLOPE are not often discussed at MIT, but, in our case, qualitative interviews are invaluable. Large-scale surveys have already demonstrated the need for a public health intervention (e.g. improved sex ed curriculum or new clinical strategies), but policy makers and healthcare professionals can’t fix the disparity until they know why it occurs. SLOPE is an important project to be part of, and a great one to discuss with friends.
Project 2: Scoping Review of Reproductive Health Outcomes
Helping with the final stages of this review is my primary task. I read lots of articles on various reproductive health outcomes of sexual minority girls and women—outcomes including STIs, unintended pregnancies, Pap tests, and contraception. I’ve worked on literature reviews for classes before, but they were not team projects and consisted of a couple hundred fewer articles, so this has been a fun UROP task. Most of the articles in the scoping review are recent, but you can see how quickly the field developed from the few articles from the 1970s-1990s (and even 2000s).
The best parts of medical papers are abstracts, which are essentially spoilers for the full articles. Data tables are also great. In the past two months, I have learned a lot about sexual minority women’s reproductive health risks, disparities, and experiences. And I have abstracts and tables to thank.
Summer Resident Advising
Because the resident Graduate Student Tutors (aka advisors) are not required to help undergrads over the summer, MIT hires undergraduate summer RAs to ensure residents’ safety and harmony, plus entertainment. The RAs are paid in summer housing and get a budget to organize on- and off-hall events.
Being an RA is fun. I've only had to deal with one serious issue, and now the only things out-of-place on hall are the piles of dirty dishes accumulating in the communal kitchen. My job has therefore mostly been “party planning”: I hosted a patriotic “Milkshakes and Fries” social for Independence Day, and recently funded a bubble tea and fruit tart party.
With one week left to finish off the summer budget, I plan to host a “Bourgeois Social” with fruit, nice cheeses and coffees, cucumber sandwiches, etc.—MIT resources put to good use! I would also like to organize a trip to the Boston Harbor Islands or Walden Pond because, although I have gone to historic downtown Boston every week this summer, I have never experienced Massachusetts nature.
I have quashed some senior year fears since my last post: started reviewing materials for the fall class pre-requisites I haven't taken, had my first job interview, prepared my resume and interview shoes, and decided on the one grad school I want to attend. Not all of these tasks have been self-initiated, but, regardless, the thought of graduating is not as terrifying anymore.
To be completely honest about why I haven't blogged, I also have a Hulu subscription now, and had a Netflix subscription before. I follow the “news” with the help of Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and colleagues. I try to stay up-to-date on science, medicine, and society developments through legitimate newspapers like The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Most importantly, I'm spending as much time as I can with friends before the high-stakes fall semester starts. Both summer and fall can be social and enjoyable, but I'll miss the current chill in September.