Slideshow: A Taste of Fieldwork in Xicotepec, Mexico

A group of University of Iowa students spent their spring break in Xicotepec, Mexico, studying food systems as part of a service-learning course.

 

Thousands of tourists flock to Mexico for spring break every year, but few of them conduct field research during their visit like a group of University of Iowa students did in March.

Dubbing themselves the Public Health Posse, the team of seven undergraduate and graduate students along with instructor Brandi Janssen traveled to Xicotepec, a small city in central-eastern Mexico, as part of a weeklong, interdisciplinary service-learning course.

Coordinated with the support of Rotary International, the course has developed long-standing service projects with the UI colleges of pharmacy and dentistry. It was the first year that a group of public health students took part.

“Our task was to identify opportunities for future public health projects that would be beneficial to the community,” says Janssen. Because Janssen’s area of study is food systems, the needs assessment was framed through that lens.

“Mexico is seeing a significant rise in diabetes and obesity, so we looked at schools and the food environment overall. We photographed and mapped grocery stores and markets and spoke to local people to answer questions like, What is the access to fruit and vegetables? What is the proportion of junk food to healthy food in stores? What are the greatest needs?”

“Every time we passed a place that sold food, we took GPS coordinates on our phones,” adds course participant Nichole Nidey, a doctoral student in epidemiology. “Our goal was to create an interactive map of the area to see where there are gaps in availability of nutritious food.”

The “story map” incorporates photos the group took during visits to public and private schools, an orphanage, a university, a hospital, a bakery, DIF (a state-run family services program), markets, grocery stores, and a coffee factory.

“The local Rotary was critical to making connections,” Janssen says. “We had a Rotary host at the institutions we visited in the mornings. In the afternoons, we were our own and went out to talk to shopkeepers and vendors.”

Those unscripted afternoons—along with other unknowns that come with international travel—often stretched students in new ways.

“Unlike a structured lab or classroom environment, you can’t plan for everything. This is exploratory fieldwork,” explains Janssen, an anthropologist by training. “You get out there, try things, and talk to people.”

And sometimes you get lucky. The group didn’t have a translator, but fortunately two of the students spoke fluent Spanish. And though varied in ages and backgrounds, the students quickly gelled as a team.

For Nidey, the trip was well worth it. “As a PhD student, I don’t get a lot of time out in the field. I wanted to do public health work in the field instead of behind the computer. It was eye-opening to get a glimpse of life in Xicotepec.” Nidey was one of four students on the trip who received a Global Public Health Student Travel Grant offered by the college. The grants were made possible by a gift to the College of Public Health from Dale and Linda Baker, whose gift also supported Janssen’s travel. The course will be available again in spring 2019.

Going forward, Janssen reiterates “that public health is not a fly in–fly out kind of thing,” she says. “We need to put a lot of thought into the programs and make sure they are sustainable.”

Photos by Nichole Nidey, Brandi Janssen, Isabella Brauhn, Megan Helms, Cindy Chavez, Michael Parisi-Mercado, Jack Feng, and Kenni Stearns.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2018 issue of Insight magazine.

Gilbert, Janssen selected as IIPHRP Policy Fellows

The Iowa Institute of Public Health Research and Policy (IIPHRP) is pleased to announce the newest members of its Policy Fellow Program. The 2017-2018 Policy Fellows are Paul Gilbert, UI assistant professor of community and behavioral health, and Brandi Janssen, UI clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental health.

The year-long Policy Fellow Program creates opportunities for primary faculty to enhance their skills for translating public health research into practice and policy. Each Policy Fellow develops and implements an “action learning project” focused on a critical public health topic. The project is intended to be completed within a one-year timeline and requires at least one stakeholder meeting and a product, such as a policy brief, proposed legislative language, or an implementation guide to disseminate at the end of the Fellowship.

“The scope of each project can be very diverse,” says Vickie Miene, interim director of the IIPHRP, based in the University of Iowa College of Public Health. “For example, one project may be to develop a position paper on a specific public health issue, while another project may be to implement legislative language that impacts workforce development.”

IIPHRP selects Policy Fellows from a competitive application process. The program provides funds for Fellows to attend specialized conferences or for other approved activities that enhance their learning. In addition, the program supports visits from policy experts, industry leaders, and other faculty who provide education and expertise to the program.

Reducing underage drinking

A portrait of Paul Gilbert, assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.Gilbert’s project is looking at ways to reduce underage drinking, specifically through social host liability laws. Social host liability holds that adults who provide alcohol to minors, or allow minors to consume alcohol on their property, should be accountable for those violations of the minimum legal drinking age. In 2014, the Iowa state code was amended to enact a statewide social host liability law, covering all jurisdictions.

As a first step, Gilbert will assess variation in enforcement of Iowa’s recent social host liability law. He will review county-level enforcement records and interview stakeholders to understand when and how the law is enforced, including barriers to enforcement. As a second step, Gilbert will draw on the local knowledge and scientific literature to make recommendations to strengthen Iowa’s adolescent alcohol prevention policy.

An issue brief outlining the problem of adolescent drinking and describing the social host liability law is forthcoming. The final policy recommendations will be shared at a public summit in summer 2018.

Improving safe farm practices

Portrait of Brandi Janssen, clinical associate professor in the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of Iowa College of Public Health.Janssen’s project will focus on partnering with agricultural lenders to improve farm safety in Iowa. Injuries among farmers and agricultural workers remain higher than nearly every other industry in the United States. In most years in Iowa, agriculture is responsible for more occupational fatalities than any other industry.

These high injury and fatality rates are partially a result of the nature of agricultural work, in which farmers and their employees are regularly exposed to multiple hazards on the job (equipment, livestock, chemicals, and environmental hazards such as extreme heat and cold). In addition, because most farms employ fewer than 10 non-related workers, there are very few enforceable policies that require safety protocols or enact penalties for unsafe working conditions.

Many other industries, including manufacturers, grain co-ops, and financial lenders, rely on a safe and healthy farm workforce. In particular, agricultural lenders, who also aim to reduce risk, may be good partners in farm safety promotion and policy. Recognizing that safe farms benefit both farmers and lenders, whose investments are better protected, this project aims to identify strategies for agricultural lenders to encourage and improve safe farm practices in Iowa.

More information about the Policy Fellow Program can be found at https://www.public-health.uiowa.edu/iiphrp/.