SURGE scholar wins poster prize for public health research in CDC showcase
Going into their junior year with an associate’s degree from Oakland Community College, Jordan Vanek wasn’t sure they wanted to continue on in higher education. The desire to learn more about the field of public health was there, but so was the imposter syndrome.
“As a genderqueer, non-traditional, first-generation student paying my own way, I struggle a lot with feeling like I'm ‘not smart enough’ or that higher education isn't for ‘people like me.’”
Ultimately, their determination to succeed prevailed. Vanek transferred to Wayne State University in 2022 and was accepted as a Success for Underrepresented Students in Graduate Education (SURGE) trainee. SURGE pairs undergraduates with graduate student mentors to provide a safe space and prepare scholars for the challenges that come with pursuing higher education.
Vanek was paired with Master of Public Health and Social Work student Rayshawnda Temple.
“Ray has been such an incredible resource and supporter for me.”
Now Vanek plans to pursue their own dual MPH/MSW once they’ve completed their bachelor’s.
When it comes to public health, no formal classroom experience quite beats hands-on, community-based learning.
So Vanek reached out to their advisor, Margaret MacKeverican, earlier this year and told her they wanted a summer internship.
“Margaret sent me a list,” Vanek said. “Because I have an apartment and bills, it was important for me to apply for a program with a stipend. That was a really big factor in my decision.”
Vanek chose the Pitt Public Health Undergraduate Scholars Program (PHUSP), an eight-week residential program for historically underserved college students considering careers in public health that culminates in a research showcase at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta.
Temple helped Vanek with the application and they were accepted as part of the 2023 cohort.
38 students from across the U.S. were paired with community internships throughout Pittsburgh performing scientific research at academic and medical institutions, program management and administration with nonprofits, and hands-on work in the community with grassroots organizations. The students attended lectures twice a week and were paired with mentors to guide them through the research process.
Vanek was placed with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank (GPCFB). Each day, they hopped on a bus and commuted 50 minutes one-way to Duquesne outside Pittsburgh.
“The Child Nutrition Team at GPCFB that I was placed with was focused primarily on solving the issue of summertime malnutrition.”
GPCFB determined 62% of children in the 11 counties the food bank services qualify for free or reduced school lunches and less than 50% of those children receive summertime nutritional support.
The Child Nutrition Team aimed to change that with the launch of the Summer Youth Cafe: A community space where kids 18 years old or younger could eat a daily meal, and the Youth Cafe Market: A pop-up market that took place 1-2 times a month to provide kids with fresh fruits, vegetables and recipes on how to prepare them.
Vanek worked closely with their mentor Catherine L. Haggerty, Ph.D., MPH from the University of Pittsburgh and preceptors Manager of Child Nutrition Youth Cafe Programs Dana Launius and Director of Child Nutrition Programs Kelsey Gross from GPCFB to perform outreach for these initiatives.
"I worked on multiple projects,” they said, “including the development and roll out of the new mascot, creating and distributing a new demographics collection system, and building the framework and clientele base for their Summer Youth Cafe program. I kept a detailed record of my experiences and observations for the duration of the internship.”
That record laid the framework for the practice poster “Addressing the Summertime Gap in Child Nutrition” Vanek presented at the CDC in Atlanta, July 24-25.
“The experience was surreal. It was amazing to meet other people my age who were so interested in and passionate about the same things that I am! It was also incredible to hear the speakers, established public health practitioners, talk about their path into the field of public health, and to make connections with these people who were so invested in building a future for the field within us.”
Vanek placed 1st for practice posters in the showcase.
“It was an honor to be recognized. It was very validating and really bolstered my confidence that I'm on the correct path, but I don't think I outrank my other cohort members in any capacity. Each poster is entirely different, just as each of us is, and I'm extremely proud of every single one of us.”
Like the best learning experiences, Vanek’s takeaways extend well beyond the research.
“I grew a lot personally during my time in Pittsburgh. I made friends, I lost a partner, and I was on my own somewhere completely new. I learned how resourceful and tenacious I am and really solidified that public health is the right field for me.
“It also showed me that research isn't quite right for me. It's an important part of public health, but I think I belong on the side of things that takes that research and uses it to implement tangible change to the systems that promote inequity in our communities.”