Public health student research helps families in need

When Emma Shen assesses the health and well-being of families, it doesn’t happen in a doctor’s office.

It happens alongside parents at their children’s schools, or with families in need at a local food pantry.

Shen, a 23-year-old Binghamton University Master of Public Health (MPH) student, believes the best way to help others is to get work done in your own neighborhoods.

Exploring ways to break down barriers to providing that essential care is a cornerstone of Shen’s internship with Binghamton University Community Schools (BUCS). In addition, she has divided her time working in a food pantry under the United Way of Broome County’s Healthy Lifestyles Coalition at the Lee Barta Community Center on Binghamton’s North Side as part of her service with AmeriCorps, to interact directly with residents regarding their needs.

“I’m really interested in meeting people where they are and bringing resources to the community where it will serve them best,” said Shen, a New York City native who earned an integrated neuroscience degree from Binghamton before pursuing her MPH. “I knew, only after earning my degree during the pandemic, that I wanted to help population-level communities, as opposed to more primary care. A big part of public health is advocating for what’s right, looking at what’s in the community, and finding ways to bring equity.”

Luann Kida, executive director of BUCS at the College of Community and Public Affairs (CCPA), said Shen has developed a strong understanding of how the community school model might align with her public health education.

“Illnesses and a lack of healthy lifestyle choices such as fresh fruit/vegetables, movement and exercise areas, and safe streets impact community well-being, which in turn affects school attendance and academic achievement” said Kida.

Shen’s internship began in the fall and continues into the spring semester of 2023. Her research involved digging into data provided through a partnership between BUCS and Excellus BlueCross BlueShield designed to identify some of Broome County’s most needy areas through the Postal code.

“What Excellus has done is evaluate the Broome County population to find out how many of their clients are getting their visits from healthy children, their annual dental visits, compared to clients who are not compliant,” Shen said. “Then they looked at who makes up the non-compliant members, what are their age groups and what postcodes are they in, and what kind of health insurance do they have?”

Kida said Shen was able to look at the data from a unique perspective, looking not only for the health outcomes, but also for the “why” behind them. Working closely with Kida, he asked Excellus clarifying questions to understand how they were using the data and aligned their analysis, BUCS’ goals and his research. This aided an action plan for Shen’s continuation of work into the spring semester.

After analyzing the data, the second half of Shen’s internship will involve setting up BUCS “parent cafes” — safe spaces that make it easier for parents or caregivers to talk about challenges, strategies and successes — in local schools to guide solutions.

“We will rely heavily on community school coordinators because they have that connection and strong relationships with parents,” Shen said, “so we can come together to find out what the barriers are or what resources they may be missing.”

While in the Lee Barta Community Center food pantry, Shen kept busy performing inventory and assisting with other programs held there. These include cooking classes offered through a partnership with Broome County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“Research-wise, I’m looking at barriers for children and families and here in my days at the food pantry, I’m in the field talking to residents to listen directly to their needs,” Shen said. “Community engagement opportunities like these are essential when it comes to public health.”

Kida concluded, “Linking Emma’s MPH internship requirements to BUCS-assisted community school work is just the beginning of what we hope will be an empowering partnership that delivers valuable educational experience to students at Binghamton University, while also supporting our own local school partners and the communities they serve.”

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