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Caroline Stallard – Why Community Science Has Everything to Do With Med School

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By Caroline Stallard

This blog is part of Students in Community Science, a series of Thriving Earth Exchange articles featuring students who have had internship, educational or volunteer experiences in community science


As a second year medical student, I am constantly presented with opportunities to build my resume, contribute to science and give back to my community. Daily emails tout volunteer experiences, research grants and lofty fellowships, enticing me to become the professional I want to be. Yet the reactions I got from my peers and professors when I embarked on a journey this summer that encompassed all three domains I’ve mentioned—career development, community involvement and academic research—were surprising.

My project between my first and second years of medical school was a self-guided internship, a real-world “practice experience” for the Masters of Public Health that I’m pursuing alongside my MD. The project consists of 200 hours of work in a public health context, under a preceptor outside the university, to achieve certain career competencies. I wanted to do something that would fulfill a humanitarian impulse. After all, it isn’t often that you’re invited to do short-term work in a setting entirely of your choosing, so I thought I’d use the opportunity to contribute to New Orleans, which is frankly a bit starved for public health resources. I got involved with a group called Claiborne Avenue Alliance, which had engaged with the Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) in a project on the effects of the elevated portion of Interstate-10 on the air quality and health outcomes of the historic Claiborne Corridor. My role was to perform a literature review, data search and preliminary health risk assessment.

Claiborne Avenue was once a tree-lined epicenter of African American culture in the city, running through the Treme, America’s oldest black neighborhood. In 1968, though, the completion of the Interstate-10 overpass transformed the area, replacing oak trees with huge concrete pillars and clean air with automobile exhaust. I hadn’t considered the implications of the Interstate until this summer when I read about the history of it and got inspired by stories of cities that had removed elevated freeways to rejuvenate blighted areas and disperse traffic more logically throughout smaller thoroughfares.

During the project I became emotionally invested in the fate of the Interstate, and that attitude came through when I discussed my project with others. Friends, family members and people within medical and public health spheres were dismissive when I talked about my project. “The Interstate isn’t going anywhere,” was the first response of almost everyone to whom I described my internship. Or, another favorite: “What does that have to do with med school?”

Despite the fact that I got to collaborate with amazing, passionate people—scientists and organizers from Thriving Earth Exchange, community leaders from Claiborne Avenue Alliance, and public health experts from Louisiana State University—I ultimately felt discouraged about the viability of community health science endeavors because of the way my project was received. Maybe it was simply too political, but I’d like to think that air quality is of concern to people of all ideological leanings. All isn’t lost, because, as I said, there are impressive individuals committed to improving environmental and thus human health, but I am less starry-eyed than I was at the start of my work.

I hope that in the face of climate change and other apocalyptic environmental trends, students, doctors and civilians will get more involved in their own worlds. We have more technological resources than ever before, and public political awareness is generally expanding. Since my experience with the Claiborne Avenue Alliance I’ve made a point of imploring my peers to get involved in and passionate about local community health initiatives. Help me spread the word: it doesn’t take much time or many resources to contribute to the welfare of your world!

mgoodwin editor

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