For two Illinois students, HERE is the latest stop on their path to advancing health equity

6/7/2023 1:40:28 PM Amy Clay-Moore

Isela VillasenorIsela Villasenor understood the impact of health disparities long before she knew the term. Growing up, Isela experienced first-hand how health disparities affected the Latine community where she grew up on the south side of Chicago. Language barriers forced her to serve as a translator for her family. She also observed undocumented individuals being denied the right to health care and watched friends and family struggle with chronic health conditions. Witnessing the overwhelming health inequities in her community fueled her passion to embark on a personal mission to make a difference.  

Isela now advocates for her community in all that she does. The injustice she witnessed as a child has motivated Isela, a first-generation college student, to work toward becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. As a rising senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Isela is pursuing a double major in molecular & cellular biology and Spanish with minors in chemistry as well as child development & well-being. Outside of classes, Isela serves as an interpreter at Avicenna Community Health Center — a free clinic for people who are uninsured or underinsured. Isela pursued this role to ensure that Spanish-speaking patients can ask questions and receive the information they need to make informed health decisions. Isela also works as an undergraduate research assistant in the lab of Prof. Erik Nelson, where she studies the impact of cholesterol on breast cancer.

Isela understands that increasing workforce diversity is a critical part of advancing health equity. “I can't wait to be the representation in the medical field that my family has been looking for since I was young,” Isela says.

Moreover, she works to ensure a smoother path for other students. As recruitment chair for the Illinois chapter of Phi Delta Epsilon Medical Fraternity (PhiDE), Isela has advocated for changes to bring about greater inclusion in PhiDE’s recruitment process. The result has been a nearly 10% increase in Latine students compared to previous classes.

Brandon SnipeBrandon Snipe is also passionate about addressing health disparities. His experience with the Avicenna Community Health Center has helped him to realize the impact that access to health care can have on people’s lives. Brandon serves on Avicenna’s leadership team, where he conducts patient recruitment at the Friends of Champaign County Food Pantry and works with the clinic’s shelter medicine initiative at Strides Shelter, — a low-barrier emergency shelter for adults experiencing homelessness.

Understanding that social and structural factors can contribute to health equity, Brandon is interested in pursuing policy changes as well. He plans to work on a project advocating for a bus route to Avicenna on Sunday afternoons, so that those without means of transportation can more easily reach the health center during its operating hours.

A rising senior and James Scholar, Brandon is studying community health with minors in both Spanish and public health. He also has plans to pursue a Master of Public Health degree before going to medical school. “I want to learn how to best deliver individualized care as a physician and contribute to improving community health through research, education, and community outreach initiatives,” he says.

Brandon’s work as a certified nursing assistant in a skilled care facility led to his interest in working as an undergraduate research assistant in Professor Shannon Mejía’s Adult Development, Adaptation, & Technology Laboratory, where he contributes to research examining how health technologies can be adapted to serve the needs of older adults and their families. He also works as a teaching assistant for the University of Illinois’ Chemistry Merit Program, where he teaches and provides mentorship to first- and second-year students from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

Isela and Brandon are the first two students to participate in the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance’s new Health Equity Research Experience at Mayo Clinic (HERE), a pilot program for Illinois undergraduate students interested in conducting health equity research in a biomedical setting.

HERE emerged from a strong educational foundation that already existed through the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance and at the Interdisciplinary Health Sciences Institute (IHSI). Since 2010, the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance has pre-selected a cohort of Illinois students to participate in the Mayo Clinic Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) program. In 2019, IHSI launched a Health Equity Scholars program to empower undergraduate students to work with a faculty mentor and a community organization on a research project focused on issues of health disparities (now the Community-Academic Scholars program).

HERE is led by Brandi Barnes, Research Scientist at IHSI and LeaAnn Carson, IHSI’s Clinical Partnerships Manager. LeaAnn, who has worked with the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance for 5 years, sees this program as an excellent point of convergence for Mayo Clinic and the University of Illinois.

“Knowing that research addressing disparities in health care and disease prevention is a priority for both institutions, we worked with Mayo Clinic to develop a program that gives students interested in this area of research the opportunity to gain research skills and learn from clinicians and scientists at a highly respected health care institution,” she says.  

With support from the Mayo Clinic & Illinois Alliance and IHSI, Isela and Brandon are spending 10 weeks at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, where they are working with their faculty mentors on health equity research and community-based projects.

Isela is working with Dr. Kim Barbel Johnson, Director of Community Clinical Trials for the Mayo Clinic Comprehensive Cancer Center. Under Dr. Barbel Johnson’s mentorship, Isela will be studying the differences in immunologic effects of replacing Vitamin D in Hispanic and non-Hispanic Black men with prostate cancer. She will also be immersed in population research opportunities to better understand the social and structural drivers of health disparities.  

Isela hopes to take what she learns back to her community in the south side of Chicago. “This experience will empower me with needed data and insight that I can use to effectively advocate for disenfranchised populations — especially those members of my community who have been denied the care they deserve for far too long,” she explained.

Brandon will be working with Megan A. Allyse, Ph.D., to learn about biomedical ethics and research how the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated existing health disparities. Using data from a mixed-methods community health assessment, his project focused on disproportionate health outcomes due to an inability to practice recommended mitigation behaviors.

“This experience allows me to develop a stronger understanding of the various factors that contribute to and enforce systemic inequities and potential interventions that can be used to address them," he says. "Overall, I am extremely grateful to have the opportunity to learn what a health equity-centered career entails directly from professionals within the field.”

Brandi Barnes, who has been working with the Community-Academic Scholars since the program started as the Health Equity Scholars in 2019, is excited for what Isela and Brandon can gain from this program. “I am delighted to partner with the Mayo Clinic on this opportunity for our Illinois students,” Brandi says. "They get the chance to work with researchers focused on achieving equitable health outcomes for all while conducting meaningful research that can be implemented in partnership with the communities it is intended to serve.”

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