By Abby Weingarten
Recent New College graduate Elizabeth Ramsamooj and first-year transfer student Dachnaica Alcius became skilled scientific researchers this summer, studying Florida’s unique experience of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The training was a first for the two young scholars, who worked as interns for Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute (MHI) and the Florida Alliance for Health Professions Diversity Scholars Program (FAHPD).
“At first, I was thinking I’d just relax and enjoy my summer because there’s a pandemic going on, but when I found out I could help with COVID-19 research, I wanted to get involved,” said Alcius, who is originally from Haiti. “Because I speak Creole, I was able to help research people who were second-generation Haitians born in the United States, and I studied their response to western medicine during COVID-19.”
While Alcius was examining the health disparities within the Haitian community, Ramsamooj was looking at the role of community aid in addressing local food insecurity. Both scholars conducted their research over a six-week period, during which time they also completed an online contact-tracing course through Johns Hopkins University as part of the MHI program.
“I was examining how food access has changed due to COVID-19, and the role of individual mobilized community leaders in addressing food insecurity within their communities in Manatee and Sarasota counties,” said Ramsamooj, who graduated from New College in May with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. “This topic has always been an interest of mine, and this experience allowed me the opportunity to continue studying something I hope to pursue as a career.”
Empowering students is one of the objectives of the MHI internships, which are joint efforts between New College adjunct professor Dr. Lisa Merritt; and Kristopher Fennie, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at New College. Dr. Merritt founded MHI in 1995 to support programs that identify health issues affecting underrepresented communities throughout the United States—a topic that often interests intellectually curious Novo Collegians.
The skills interns learn at the MHI are invaluable; Ramsamooj and Alcius were both given the freedom to design their own research while building their critical-thinking skills and professional credentials.
And the connection between the MHI and New College continues to strengthen as more students participate in ongoing programs. Both institutions have been conducting extensive research within the local community during the pandemic.
“My research focused on, if a medical emergency happens, will second-generation Haitians seek western treatment? What I learned was fascinating,” said Alcius, who is currently transitioning from biopsychology to public health studies. “I found out they most likely will use traditional Haitian medicine [a more holistic, plant-based approach] even if they contract COVID-19, because they are skeptical of the American medical system.”
Alcius’ sample group included 86 participants, about three-quarters of whom had been living in Florida for the past six months. Her aim was to describe socio-demographic factors among the sample, and to answer the question, “How does acculturation factor in the decision making of Haitian young adults seeking care during COVID-19?”
“I thought a lot of the people I spoke to would go to a doctor if they were to get COVID-19, and if their symptoms were really bad, but that was not always the case,” Alcius said. “More than 30 percent of the people said they would use Haitian medicine instead. It turns out people who come to the U.S. from Haiti still maintain this same mindset because they don’t trust the healthcare system.”
The reasons for this were eye-opening, Alcius said, but not entirely surprising.
“Some of the people said, ‘It’s because I’m black in America,’” Alcius said. “Race and biases definitely played a part in the distrust of being treated properly by the healthcare system here.”
One participant said: “Black people simply do not receive the same quality of healthcare as their white counterparts. Putting my life in the hands of people who may potentially put their feelings about my race over their quality of work is something to be wary of.”
The commitment to gathering these types of insights are part of what makes the MHI such a significant research resource. Its studies shed light on injustice in healthcare and how various populations suffer from racial and socioeconomic bias.
“Dr. Merritt is so great at what she does. I learned so much this summer from her and Dr. Fennie, and I would really like to work with the MHI again and conduct more research,” Alcius said. “Before, when I thought about doing research, I thought, ‘You have to be a great scientist to do that’ but then I realize you really just have to be someone curious with a great mentor. They showed me that.”
Ramsamooj coordinated direct action efforts with MHI Safekeepers in addressing COVID-19 prevention efforts in the community, and she was a principal investigator into the role of community aid in addressing food insecurity during the pandemic. She interviewed 43 people and learned that the manner in which people access food within their local environment has been altered by COVID-19. Some individuals in households throughout Sarasota and Manatee counties had less funds to allocate to groceries, and depended more on community aid (such as food banks) for proper nutrition.
“I’ve always been interested in working with diverse populations, and I want to use that research to really change policy,” Ramsamooj said. “I especially want to look at food-insecure areas and see how that can affect people’s health.”
Ramsamooj has a passion for cooking and for serving healthy food. While she was at New College, she worked as a server, barista and chef at the onsite Four Winds Café; and she often made $3 fresh, vegan meals for the campus community in an initiative she started called the Monday Blues Café. She also has an Instagram page dedicated to her culinary journey.
For her thesis, entitled The Local Consumer Environment of Sarasota, Florida: How Access to Healthy Food Choices Varies Between Local Consumer Food Environments with Different Median Household Incomes, she traveled to 30 food outlets (convenience, grocery and ethnic food stores) spanning a threshold of economic quintiles.
“It was more than evident that access to healthy food choices is not equal. To strive towards a more equitable food environment, structural change is necessary. We need to advocate for outlets with fresh produce and foods to be built in areas targeted with convenience stores and fast-food outlets,” Ramsamooj said. “And there needs to be a reliable system of transportation and education for people to access their nutritional needs. While structural change may take some time, it is vital for a sustainable food environment that strives towards equity.”
Ramsamooj is now moving on to the University of West Florida for a master of public health degree program, and her ultimate goal is to work with an organization like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Being able to incorporate her love of food and community into her life path is something Ramsamooj learned at the MHI and at New College.
“Hands-on learning was one of the reasons I came to New College, but I never would have thought I would have had the ability to lead my own research like I did at the MHI,” Ramsamooj said. “New College gives you opportunities like these—to make the most of what you want to do and to completely personalize your education. That was a wonderful experience for me.”
For more information on MHI programs and student/community opportunities, call (941) 706-3362 or visit the-mhi.org.
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.