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Studying women’s health across borders

Mount students travel to Argentina to conduct field research and visit local communities

July 18, 2022

Graciela Orzoco ’23 came to Mount Saint Mary’s University planning to major in nursing, but in her junior year, she decided to switch majors to healthcare policy after learning more about the program. While still determined to work in the healthcare sector, Orozco has expanded her professional horizons, and her career plans now involve working in the administrative side of hospitals advocating for better healthcare in low-income areas, opening her own clinic and, eventually, pursuing a PhD and teaching.

(Left to right) A representative of a local NGO in Salta with MSMU GWSTEM students Shanika Chowdhury ’22, Thais Perez ’23, Juliette Arteaga ’23, Katherine Banuelos-Sanchez ’23, Cristina Garcia Garcia ’23, Kaitlyn Zurawik ’23, Graciela Orozco ’23, Esther Arriaza ’24, and MSMU professors Dr. Lia Roberts and Dr. Luiza Nogaj at a viewpoint of Salta.
(Left to right) A representative of a local NGO in Salta with MSMU GWSTEM students Shanika Chowdhury ’22, Thais Perez ’23, Juliette Arteaga ’23, Katherine Banuelos-Sanchez ’23, Cristina Garcia Garcia ’23, Kaitlyn Zurawik ’23, Graciela Orozco ’23, Esther Arriaza ’24, and MSMU professors Dr. Lia Roberts and Dr. Luiza Nogaj at a viewpoint of Salta.

“I would like to advance policies and systems to better educate doctors, nurses — all medical providers — on how to properly assess and support their patients, especially in underserved communities,” says the student.

Orozco recently traveled to the northwestern region of Argentina (Salta) to study women’s health from a multi-disciplinary approach as part of the Global Women in STEM and Policy (GWSTEM) program. Designed by MSMU faculty, the program trains cohorts of undergraduate students to conduct applied research in both sciences and social sciences to provide them with hands-on experience in lab and qualitative research.

GWSTEM is open to students majoring in biology, chemistry, biochemistry, political science, history, healthcare policy and global politics. Students accepted to the program form a cohort and engage in a three-semester, cross-discipline experience that involves a field research trip abroad during the summer.

“The goal of the program is to give students an insight into academic research and global experiences with the aim to broaden their career perspectives and open up their possibilities after graduation,” says Lia Roberts, PhD, associate professor of political science, director of the Center for Global Initiatives and one of the GWSTEM leads. Students get the chance to conduct their own research, work on papers and present their findings at conferences. “This experience really boosts their confidence because most students at larger universities don’t get this type of opportunity until they go to grad programs. For women in STEM and policy, and especially women of color, this is a huge benefit,” adds Roberts.

MSMU students Shanika Chowdhury, Thais Perez, Graciela Orozco and Esther Arriaza in front of Salta’s cathedral
MSMU students Shanika Chowdhury, Thais Perez, Graciela Orozco and Esther Arriaza in front of Salta’s cathedral

During the spring semester, the cohort of 10 students took courses in political science and survey methodology and became certified in human subjects’ research to prepare for their fieldwork trip.

The fifth cohort to travel internationally for research went to Argentina in May, after a two-year travel hiatus caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Over 10 days, the group visited two local communities, met with non-government organizations working in the region, and conducted 49 in-depth surveys in Spanish with women to learn more about the possible social-economic, political, nutritional and environmental factors that explain variations in breast cancer and other women’s health outcomes.

Salta, one of the poorest regions of Argentina, is economically reliant on mining and agriculture, two sectors that can be detrimental to human health. On the ground, students had the chance to interview women and gather data on healthcare access, natural remedies, nutrition and other factors that can affect their health. They also collected samples of local spices and herbs thought to have health benefits and analyzed the air quality in the region.

This fall, students will take a final course on data analysis and leadership training to interpret the data they have gathered in Argentina, work on their own research papers and prepare presentations that they will share at regional and national conferences.

 “This program has boosted my confidence and has made me step out of my shell. It has given me the motivation and empowerment to seek a career in research and it has taught me that there are endless career possibilities to help and improve people’s lives,” says Orozco.

GWSTEM students visited two local communities in Salta, Argentina, conducted in-depth surveys with 49 women and met with NGOs working in the region.
GWSTEM students visited two local communities in Salta, Argentina, conducted in-depth surveys with 49 women and met with NGOs working in the region.

For Esther Arriaza ’24, a biology major, this was her first time traveling to South America, and one of the highlights of her experience was having the opportunity to immerse herself in a different culture. “My favorite part of the trip was interviewing the women and getting to know them. It was humbling to learn about their lives and stories,” she says. “I’m grateful to have the opportunity to work closely with the [Mount] professors and build a network with people abroad. This experience is definitely something I will always remember and carry with me.”

Arriaza explains that being part of GWSTEM has sparked her interest in pursuing a master’s in public health. She hopes to find a career opportunity that allows her to both work in a lab and directly with people. “I would consider working for a nonprofit now after learning more about the NGOs we met [in Argentina] and seeing how they impact the communities,” she says “I would like to give back to the community where I come from in South LA and acknowledge my roots.”

“The program offers the opportunity for students to think of themselves as scientists and to become one as they go through the process,” says Luiza Nogaj, PhD, professor of biological sciences and a GWSTEM co-lead. Nogaj explains that being part of this unique experience also helps students to stand out in their graduate program applications. “Two Mount alumnae who were part of the program’s second cohort were recently accepted into medical school and physician associate school at UCLA. They both told me that their admission interviews focused on their GWSTEM experience at the Mount.”

Since GWSTEM first launched in 2016, 77 Mount students have participated in the program, given 49 presentations at the Southern California Conferences for Undergraduate Research and participated in other regional and national professional conferences. In addition to Argentina, the cohorts have conducted fieldwork research in India and twice in Peru (the fourth cohort was not able to travel internationally in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic). The data that the GWSTEM students have gathered in different countries is helping to build an MSMU cross-national database on women’s health data.