Student research projects lead to solutions for real-life health problems
by Jennifer Kistler
When Lisa Morales, Cassandra Langevin and Krystal Pouliot decided to research the effectiveness of disinfectants for a microbiology class at the Doña Ana Branch Community College (DABCC), they never realized that it would significantly change the lives of people in the Paso del Norte region. Their project escalated when they discovered that a disinfectant used by an area hospital was contaminated. It soon became apparent that they needed to conduct more research, but they lacked the funding to do so.
With the help of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation (PDNHF) and the New Mexico State University College of Health and Social Services (CHSS), the students received a $9,993 grant that enabled them to expand their research on “Disinfectants: Hype or Help?” They later provided substantial information to the area hospital, which revised its storage policies and ultimately created a healthier place for the people of the Paso del Norte region.
Morales, Langevin and Pouliot are among more than 200 NMSU students who have received $600,000 in grants during the past four years through the Health Oriented Themes (HOT) Projects program sponsored by PDNHF and CHSS. The program provides grants to develop projects related to health awareness, promotion and prevention that will be conducted in the Paso del Norte region, which includes Juárez, Mexico; the area around El Paso, Texas; and southern New Mexico. Projects have ranged from producing a CD to educate children about cancer to constructing a mural that communi- cates positive and negative health behaviors.
“HOT Projects not only provides services and research for the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, but it gives students the opportunity to get a grant, manage it and inevitably get into the professional world of research and health-related professions,” says Larry Olsen, associate dean of academics and research for CHSS.
PDNHF’s five-year, $2.3 million initiative supports four other institutions including the University of Texas at El Paso, the University of Texas at Houston’s School of Public Health, El Paso Community College and Universidad Pedagógica Nacional in Mexico.
Real-world experience for students
Groups of students can receive up to $10,000 for research projects and individual students can receive up to $3,000. With a maximum of one year to complete the projects, students learn how to manage time and a budget to develop high-quality projects and research.
The process of submitting a proposal includes strict guidelines, such as writing a complete abstract identifying the purpose and significance of the project, an overall goal, a proposed budget and details on how the project will be evaluated. The proposal also must show creativity and demonstrate good grammar and writing skills.
Olsen says not every student who applies for the HOT Projects receives a grant. However, the selection committee gives students suggestions for further development so they can reapply.
Completed projects are presented to the PDNHF in the spring. The opening of the new CHSS building (see page 15) has allowed HOT Projects participants to train with and use professional equipment for their presentations. The building is equipped with a Media and Resource Center that provides access to 11 computers, video equipment, and a large format poster printer purchased for the HOT Projects.
“It is a good experience for students to write a grant, justify the importance of their research and actually go through the process of being judged on their proposals and final product,” says Laura Jones, a microbiology graduate student who participated in HOT Projects for two years.
Last year, Jones and fellow microbiology graduate students Allyssa Martinez and Heather Balsiger used their grant from HOT Projects to test treated wastewater in the Rio Grande, which may harbor pathogenic microorganisms such as viruses and parasites. Treated wastewater could have an impact in areas where water resources are limited and heavily utilized – like the Rio Grande – and could pose an increased risk to public health in the Paso del Norte region. By conducting a viral analysis of raw sewage in three wastewater treatment plants in the Paso del Norte region, they discovered that the treatment process was not removing all pathogens from the wastewater.
Students throughout NMSU participate
Students from all six colleges at NMSU have participated in HOT Projects, with many advancing to receive recognition in professional journals and at national and international conferences.
Rebecca Chambers decided to research how household food insecurities affected the Paso del Norte region for her graduate thesis. Focusing on the population of Las Cruces, Chambers discovered through a sample survey of 100 residents that household food insecurities may present a barrier for families when making healthy dietary decisions, often leading to obesity and complications with diabetes.
“It is an increasingly relevant social problem,” Chambers says. “It also is a problem that is misunderstood and one that receives too little attention in this country.”
Through her research, Chambers has become interested in finding ways to empower neighborhoods and communities to deal with health issues, particularly those that involve diet. She presented her research at the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE) Mid-Year Scientific Conference at NMSU in June 2003 and received funding from CHSS to attend the SOPHE Annual Meeting in San Francisco in November 2003.
This year CHSS accepted 12 project proposals. These include studies called “Assessing Sexual Behavior at New Mexico State University” and “Together We Prepare for First Aid.” Research on the “Nature and Extent of Victimization of Pregnant Women in Juárez” will be presented at the International Union for Health Promotion and Education Conference in Melbourne, Australia, and at the New Mexico Public Health Association annual meeting this spring in Gallup, N.M.
“Clearly the HOT Projects initiatives have paid and will continue to pay dividends for the health of the people in the Paso del Norte region,” Olsen says.
For more information: www.hotprojects.org