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.

Lexi Pratt, Seamus Taylor named This Is Public Health Ambassadors

Seamus Taylor
Seamus Taylor
Alessandra Pratt
Lexi Pratt

Congratulations to Lexi Pratt, MS student in industrial hygiene, and Seamus Taylor, MPH student in health management and policy, for being named Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) This Is Public Health Ambassadors!

Thirty-five new students are joining the Ambassador program, representing the This Is Public Health brand and 23 ASPPH member institutions. Throughout the year, Ambassadors participate in a series of public health outreach events along with professional development activities.

Join the new ambassadors on Twitter, Wednesday, June 6 from 12:30 -1:30 p.m. eastern for the latest #TIPHChat. This Twitter Chat will feature an introduction to the new ambassadors, their backgrounds, and interests in public health. Submit your questions in advance and RSVP to join the discussion. Follow along using #TIPHChat.

This Is Public Health Ambassador program logo

Research assistants sought for obesity study – apply by April 30

Seeking Research Assistants for an exciting new project anticipated to begin Fall 2018

The University of Iowa College of Public Health is partnering with Grinnell College on a project to tackle obesity in Iowa. This project is initiated by Tom Vilsack, the former Governor of Iowa and US Secretary of Agriculture. Rockefeller Foundation has expressed interest in funding this project. The project will be a randomized controlled trial to test the effectiveness of an obesity intervention in Iowa school-aged children. It will involve not only the child participants but also stakeholders including families, schools, and communities. Details of the intervention are under development and will be forthcoming.  The study is anticipated to begin in Fall 2018 and is led by a dynamic multidisciplinary team within the Department of Epidemiology at the College of Public Health.

In anticipation of this project beginning in the Fall 2018, applications of interested hourly research assistants are sought.  Graduate students from Dietetic Internship Program, Epidemiology, Community and Behavioral Health, Health and Human Physiology, and Urban and Regional Planning are highly encouraged to apply.

A total of 5 positions are sought for the 2018-2019 academic year.  Students interested in applying for these hourly positions should send a letter of interest to Vickie Miene at  by April 30, 2018.  The letter of interest should be limited to 2 pages total and should include the following items:

  • Student name and contact phone and email
  • Student primary area of study
  • Student anticipated graduation date
  • Student personal interest in the proposed project
  • Explanation of student interest, knowledge and prior experience related to obesity research
  • Explanation of student interest/experience working in team settings
  • Explanation of student interest/experience conducting interviews or focus groups

Students must have excellent verbal and written communication skills and the ability to travel within a 90 mile radius of Iowa City for study activities.  Students will need to meet the University of Iowa Driving Policy requirements.

Students will be notified of selection for faculty interviews which are tentatively scheduled to occur May 1-4, 2018

If you have questions about this opportunity please contact Wei Bao at