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WHRY Undergrads Reflect on Fellowship Projects, Remote Learning, and the Importance of Women's Health During COVID-19

December 18, 2020

This year, Women’s Health Research at Yale welcomed two students into the center’s Undergraduate Fellowship. Olivia Genao is a sophomore in Pierson College from Los Angeles, majoring in Sociology with a concentration in Health and Society. Ke’ala Akau, originally from Honolulu, is a junior in Branford College, studying the History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health (HSHM). Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Yale College has restricted the number of students living in residence. Recently, the two fellows had the opportunity to meet each other over Zoom.

Ke’ala: Hello, Olivia! It is so nice to finally meet you. I’m glad to have the chance to sit down and hear what you have been up to. May I ask where are you Zooming in from?

Olivia: Yes, absolutely! Glad to meet you as well. I’m currently in Seattle, staying with some friends.

Ke’ala: That’s so cool! How have you been finding remote learning?

Olivia: I think remote learning in general is tough because I love being able to take seminar classes and develop close relationships with professors and classmates who have similar interests, and that doesn’t happen in the same way virtually. Thankfully, professors are available for remote office hours. But with other students, it can be hard to form relationships like we did before the pandemic. And of course, I miss being with friends. That has been a huge change.

Ke’ala: I totally hear you on that. I feel lucky to be in New Haven to take classes, even remotely. But the experience is completely different with many friends scattered across the globe and functioning in different time zones. Could you tell me a bit about your WHRY fellowship project and perhaps how it has worked remotely?

Olivia: So, I’m working with Dr. Kelsey Martin, who is a physician and an Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine. We are compiling data about how women have different outcomes or display different symptoms than men for Dr. Martin’s specialties of oncology and hematology. The goal is for this research to be integrated into the medical school curriculum so that students can be trained to look for these sex-specific differences.

Ke’ala: Wow! What an interesting and highly important project. What’s your role?

Olivia: I review the relevant literature and compile data that can be highlighted in course content. Then Dr. Martin selects the most notable examples and works them into presentation slides for use in lectures. When we finish, we will have a model for other medical schools to follow, including a guide for how to perform and apply this type of research efficiently in other specialties. Working remotely can be a challenge, as so many of us have learned this year. But we keep to a tight schedule and communicate often, so it has worked out pretty nicely thus far.

Ke’ala: As I have been learning, this is a subject that has been overlooked for far too long.

Olivia: Yes, I completely agree. It is so surprising that medical schools do not necessarily incorporate data on sex-and-gender differences in what they teach. Or that when they do discuss women, it is usually in relation to reproductive health.

So, please. Tell me about your work.

Ke’ala: Of course! I’m working with the center’s communications team, primarily researching and writing articles for the student-led blog, “Why Didn’t I Know This?” Continuing the work of my predecessors, I have explored topics that broadly fit into women’s health, such as the problem of all-male panels at medical conferences and the worsening issue of how poverty can restrict access to needed menstrual products. Just before the election, the Connecticut Mirror published a piece I wrote about what the coronavirus pandemic, the 1918 Flu, and the passage of the 19th Amendment can teach us about our current moment.

Olivia: Your blog posts have been such interesting reads

Ke’ala: Thank you! My goals with the blog have been to digest scientific findings, understand the historical foundations of current topics in women’s health, and explore how to achieve health equity. I am learning how to communicate about important women’s health topics in an effective manner, which is a skill that has become even more important during the pandemic. As someone who really values interdisciplinary study, I have been fascinated by the many different lenses with which one can view topics in women’s health, and more specifically, women’s health research. Also, I have been surprised by the new perspective that writing for the blog has given me. I feel like every time I read a study, I’m critiquing its methodology and thinking about who might have been left out.

How about you? Are you seeing things differently?

Olivia: Of course. I’ve also been surprised by just how many illnesses and conditions manifest differently in men and women and how this isn’t always recognized in medicine. I did not realize just how wide the gap still is, despite all the progress made by WHRY and others. I think that a lot of women are suffering unnecessarily.

Ke’ala: That is a very powerful realization. I am so inspired to hear about projects like yours that are helping to catalyze a necessary shift in mindset and changing how medicine is researched, taught, and practiced.

Olivia: Yes, it is so exciting to think about how we are playing a role in facilitating change in how future doctors are trained and how this is a part of a bigger shift to improve health care for everyone. I’ve come to realize that there are many opportunities for change. Like with any worthwhile project, it will take work, but change is absolutely possible.

Submitted by Rick Harrison on December 17, 2020