February 22, 2019

Public Health in the D.R.

UMass Amherst undergraduate does graduate-level research thanks to a DiGiammarino Scholarship

Rachel Haley’s senior thesis is so simple that you wonder why nobody has done it before, yet no one has—which is what makes it genius. Haley, a student in Commonwealth Honors College at UMass Amherst, is comparing the health care experiences of residents of the Dominican Republic with those of first-generation immigrants from the D.R. to the United States—people from the same point of origin, all suffering from chronic disease—but within different health care systems, in different places.

Haley’s Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration (BDIC) is in Global Health and Latin American Studies. She got the idea for her project when a friend’s father became ill after immigrating to the U.S. “I went to my BDIC advisor and asked: ‘What should I do? I have this idea that I think is probably really crazy, but I think I could do it myself, and it incorporates my undergraduate research grant from the Center for Research for Families.’” Encouraged to learn what resources were available, Haley went to the library and wrote a proposal in the middle of the night.

Haley was awarded the Frank and Helen DiGiammarino Scholarship in the spring—a scholarship that includes a living stipend—which has allowed her to travel to the Dominican Republic to conduct field interviews with residents who suffer from chronic disease.

Haley chose to focus on Santo Domingo and Boston, as cities of similar size. She is interviewing 10 people in each location to assess their upbringing, their community, and their experiences of access to health care, treatment, and also the stigma of chronic disease in each culture.

This past summer, Haley traveled to Santo Domingo to conduct her first series of interviews. She met with health professionals and organizations—such as the largest national hospital in the D.R., which gave her permission to work with its chronic disease unit—that helped her recruit study participants.

Haley sat with each person for two interviews. “The second interviews are almost always more meaningful,” she explains. “People leave, and reflect on their experiences, or they go talk to their community, which is what I had hoped, and then report back to me. The process was both incredibly difficult and incredibly hopeful. I was in awe of the stories and topics I was able to uncover.”

For the next stage of her project, Haley will recruit ten Dominican immigrants in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of Boston.

The project is Haley’s capstone thesis. She has applied for a Fulbright grant to support her master’s in public health studies with a concentration in epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Toronto.

Haley intends for her findings to be a resource for the future. “As far as I’ve been able to find, there are no studies of chronic disease in the Dominican Republic,” she says. “It’s the least researched country in all of Latin America—no one has ever asked them these questions! So you can’t suddenly jump in to an epidemiological study, you have to start with a descriptive one, even to know, where should we even be looking?”