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Beyond Borders

Students cross boundaries of nation and discipline to research cancer with a wide-angled lens

April 6, 2018

Professor Lia Roberts, PhD, center, with some of the students who traveled to Peru in August 2017 to study the country's healthcare system up close.
Professor Lia Roberts, PhD, center, with some of the students who traveled to Peru in August 2017 to study the country's healthcare system up close.

By Phillip Jordan

If you’re going to experience a life-altering revelation, you could do far worse than the skyscraping Peruvian Andes for a backdrop. Janae Jones ’19 can attest to this. In the summer of 2017, the biochemistry major traveled to Peru’s highlands to survey doctors, nurses and patients to further her research on the effectiveness of natural remedies in treating treat cancer.

There, Jones may have found her calling: to work at a research hospital where she can study pediatric oncology and devise safer, more efficient and less taxing cancer treatments.

“I’ve always wanted to go into the medical field, but I had no idea how much this journey to Peru was going to affect me,” Jones says. “I’ve learned that there is so much more to healthcare than the medical component alone — cultural context, family and work issues, access to care, pain management, the level of trust patients need to have. This whole program opened my eyes to new pathways to pursue.”

The program she’s referring to is the Global Women in STEM and Policy (GWSP) undergraduate research training program. Designed by Mount Saint Mary’s University faculty, GWSP is open to students majoring in biology, chemistry, political science, healthcare policy and global politics. Students accepted to the program form a cohort and engage in a three-semester, cross-discipline experience that culminates in a summer of global field research.

“Our goal with this project is to increase the number of women entering, and excelling, in the fields of STEM, public policy, and behavioral and social sciences,” says Lia Roberts, PhD, associate professor of political science and one of GWSP’s leads. “We also want to make sure this is a sustainable model to expand global research opportunities for both students and faculty.”

While innovative in method, GWSP advances a longstanding University mission to challenge students to think differently and work collaboratively in order to be catalysts for change in their communities and the world at large. And this program is equipping students for the journey.

“Rigorous, original research helps students develop critical thinking skills, learn how to troubleshoot problems and persevere when things don’t work out the first time around,” says Luiza Nogaj, PhD, professor of biological sciences and a GWSP co-lead. “Those are the skills that employers, grad programs and medical schools are looking for. Those are also the skills that give our students the confidence to dream big.”

In the first semester of the GWSTEM program, biology and chemistry students received their introduction to global politics in a “Politics of Peru” course. Meanwhile, political science students crossed the threshold of biology and chemistry with a “Cancer and Society” course. The second semester focused on preparing for fieldwork in Peru.
In the first semester of the GWSTEM program, biology and chemistry students received their introduction to global politics in a “Politics of Peru” course. Meanwhile, political science students crossed the threshold of biology and chemistry with a “Cancer and Society” course. The second semester focused on preparing for fieldwork in Peru.

How it works

The program’s first cohort — made up of 18 students — launched in the fall of 2016 with the aim of studying breast cancer causes and effects in the U.S. and Peru with a wide-angled lens. That meant having policy and political science students learn the science behind cancer and what can fight it, and also having biology and chemistry students understand how the political, social and cultural framework of the two countries might affect cancer treatment and access to healthcare for women.

During the semester before departing for Peru, students had the freedom to create their own small-group studies that would explore possible answers to the cohort’s larger research question: Why do Peruvian women have a lower incidence of breast cancer incidence than American women? Jones, for instance, conducted lab experiments to determine the extent to which Peruvian natural remedies and nutritional differences contribute to the prevention, or prevalence, of cancer. Meanwhile, biology major Erica Cisneros ’18 decided to research disparities in healthcare access between foreign-born Latinas in Los Angeles and indigenous communities in Peru.

The program’s freedom and inventive approach even led some students to change their career paths completely.

“This project definitely drew me out of my comfort zone,” says Cisneros. “But it also forced me to look at things from outside my spectrum, and that led me to find my new passion for policy and public health. If I hadn’t applied to this program, I don’t think I would have been as confident in applying to grad schools for a master’s in public health, let alone toying with the idea of getting my PhD.”

Into the field

In August of 2017, the cohort journeyed to Peru. There, over 10 days, students listened to lectures at hospitals and universities, and learned about the country’s healthcare system up close. They collected samples of soil, as well as fruits, vegetables and spices thought to have health benefits. Most meaningfully, students conducted scores of surveys of cancer patients and survivors in indigenous communities, gathering data on healthcare access, treatment options, nutrition, family history and other factors that the students could incorporate into their research projects. 

The experience provided students with the chance to perform research in the real world. The previous semester, for example, Jones had been in the lab testing how fruits such as papaya and noni, sometimes used as natural remedies for cancer in Peru, might affect human cells. On the ground, she had the chance to interview people who used the fruit, and hear directly from them what effects the fruit had and why they’d chosen to use it either instead of, or in concert with more conventional medicines.

“Having the political and social context from class had helped us frame our surveys and present our questions in a respectful, informed manner,” Jones says. “There’s so much we can learn from listening, and learning from what’s going on in people’s lives that can affect their health and their treatment. Understanding that proved to be so important when we were in Peru.”

Upon returning to L.A., students took a final course to analyze and interpret the data they’d gathered in Peru, as well as to work on papers for publication and presentations they are sharing at regional and national conferences. Another innovative element of the program helped students learn to articulate the leadership lessons they’d learned.
Upon returning to L.A., students took a final course to analyze and interpret the data they’d gathered in Peru, as well as to work on papers for publication and presentations they are sharing at regional and national conferences. Another innovative element of the program helped students learn to articulate the leadership lessons they’d learned.

Back to the lab

After returning home, students went to work analyzing their findings and preparing presentations on their research. At the same time, a second cohort of students was just getting started. This summer, that second group will also travel to Peru, adding to the data gathered by the students who came before them. A third cohort, to begin this fall, will likely target new populations to study for comparison, with potential field research destinations in Tanzania or India. Other future target populations could include populations living along national borders.

The program’s sustainability is rooted in how it was constructed. Faculty can rotate in and out depending on the expertise needed for each cohort, and veteran students serve as mentors to incoming students. Faculty and students can also work collaboratively to publish papers and continue their research long-term.

As a healthcare policy major and a chemistry minor, Pauline Cheng ’19 was the rare student in the program who already had a foot in both the STEM and policy worlds. She developed an ongoing project based on her experience in the program, comparing the role that medical mistrust plays in whether rural, marginalized communities in the Peruvian Andes and the U.S. Appalachians seek out preventative healthcare services. This year, Cheng hopes to update her research using new data gathered by the second cohort, and to work with Roberts to publish her findings.

Taking the lead

The program also opened up conversations on what it means to be a woman in traditionally male-dominated STEM and public policy fields.

“Being a woman in STEM and policy means I have a responsibility to demand more from myself,” Cisneros says. “I don’t represent just myself.”

Jones says that classroom conversations about the challenges and opportunities facing women in the workforce — and in positions of leadership — are a staple at the Mount, and it’s one of the University’s distinctions that Jones appreciates most.

“We have power in numbers here, and we encourage each other, support each other as women,” she says. “The Mount teaches us that we are unstoppable and it’s more than a slogan. It’s instilled in you. It’s a belief they create in you. It’s role models like I’ve had in Dr. Deprele and Dr. Nogaj who make me keep striving to reach higher.”

Without their examples, and encouragement, Jones says she would not be applying for prestigious REUs (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) this summer at national institutions, in fields like genetic coding and nanotechnology. Neither would she be looking into global internship possibilities in Africa, Europe or, yes, Peru. She would also not be planning to pursue her MD and PhD, so she can practice medicine, conduct research and teach students how to do the same. 

“More than anything, though, what I love most is that now when I go home and my younger sister sees what I’m doing, she tells me how she wants to be a doctor, too,” Jones says. “That’s a beautiful thing when you can be an inspiration to other women, to the point that they think, ‘If you can do it, then I can do it.’”

Pauline Cheng ’19, Janae Jones ’19 and Erica Cisneros ’18 hold up a woven blanket made in Peru.
Pauline Cheng ’19, Janae Jones ’19 and Erica Cisneros ’18 hold up a woven blanket made in Peru.

Yielding fruit

The Global Women in STEM and Policy research training program is not just benefitting those who participate directly. Students and professors alike are sharing their research and insights with the wider academic world.

  • Every student from the program’s initial cohort has presented at an academic conference, such as the Southern California Conferences for Undergraduate Research. Each student is also presenting posters at the Mount’s annual Academic Symposium this April, and several are developing papers for publication in academic journals.
  • Roberts will take five students (including two biology majors) to present their findings at the Midwestern Political Science Association in Chicago and the Western Association in San Diego this year.
  • Nogaj is leading a contingent of STEM students to present at the American Cancer Society Conference in New Orleans and at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in San Diego.
  • This spring, the program’s faculty co-leads will publish a paper in the Chronicle of Undergraduate Research on pedagogical lessons learned from this interdisciplinary project.
  • Faculty are working to embed portions of the GWSP program into the University’s General Studies curriculum, and there are also plans to build an independent honors curriculum specific to the fields covered in the program.
  • Data gathered in this course is also being organized and archived to be made available for other professors and students to use in their own work.

“The beauty of the program is that it works for students and faculty research,” Roberts says. “For students thinking about grad school, this program offers evidence that they can do original research independently and collaboratively. For professors, it’s tough to teach year-round, develop courses, support students and find time for research. With this program, we can teach students how to do original research, and in the process, collect data for our own work.”

 

Global Women in STEM and Policy faculty:

Lia Roberts, PhD, associate professor, political science (co-lead)

Luiza Nogaj, PhD, professor, biological sciences (co-lead)

Sylvine Deprele, PhD, associate professor, physical sciences and mathematics (co-lead)

Stephen Inrig, PhD, director, Health Policy and Management graduate program (co-lead)

Jackie Filla, PhD, associate professor, history and political science  

Adriane Jones, PhD, associate professor, biological sciences

Emerald Archer, PhD, director, Center for the Advancement of Women

Rosalyn Kempf, EdD, assistant vice president, Student Affairs and Women’s Leadership

 

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