Before you can help someone, you must gain their trust. Biology major Pooja Deshpande ’21 learned that critical lesson while traveling in India to help communities ravaged by extreme weather events.
“This is the fundamental part of public health — building trust with a community and learning from it before you can even begin to implement any programs or developments,” said Deshpande, a senior from Miller Place, New York.
Deshpande traveled to India in Summer 2019, working alongside SUNY Cortland Professor Jena Nicols Curtis and 10 other undergraduates from across New York State to conduct research in public health. The team investigated health disparities in southern India and worked with local organizations to help mitigate and implement interventions.
Also participating in the program was Hayley Rein, a 2019 Stony Brook alumna who majored in sociology and psychology.
Deshpande, who has a dual minor in chemistry and health, medicine and society, conducted research through the Summer Public Health Research in India Program, which focused specifically on the impacts of severe weather events on Kodaikanal, a hill town in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu that has been recently impacted by devastating weather events likely due to climate change.
These events have caused decreased accessibility to safe water sources, as well as power outages, widespread damage to infrastructure and even physical harm to some community members.
In an effort to comprehend the perceptions and understandings of community members, Deshpande conducted surveys and in-depth interviews with business owners, local organization administrators and administrators from the Kodaikanal International School.
This enabled the research team to understand the extent to which disaster preparedness precautions and methods were put into place, evaluate those methods, and plan follow-up studies and interventions to determine how the community can be better prepared for future weather events.
“This research showed me how environmental issues and public health go hand-in-hand, something I had never previously studied,” Deshpande said. “Natural disasters, environmental conditions and access to care that influences quality of life are closely associated, and this experience showed me how broad the field of public health really is.”
Language was often a barrier to the research team’s ability to gather information.
“I had to learn about the customs, traditions and standards of living from the communities I wanted to help before I could even begin to ask specific, research-oriented questions about their lives,” she said.
Fluency in Marathi, an Indo-Aryan language, helped her to communicate confidently when she was in Mumbai.
“I have never lived in India, but I visit the majority of my family that lives in Mumbai and Pune every few years, which has allowed me to strengthen and build upon my language skills in Marathi,” said Deshpande. “This motivated me from a young age to learn not only how to speak the language, but also to read and write it so that I could build stronger connections with my family members.”
When she was in Kodaikanal, she conducted surveys in English, which she said brought about a “host of difficulties and survey bias.”
To set the interviewees at ease, she attempted to use phrases and terms that she had picked up in their native tongue during the preliminary studies. But India is vast and Deshpande ran into trouble in some regions of the country where Tamil and Hindi were the primary languages spoken.
“I did feel a sense of discomfort at times when I was unable to communicate and other students relied on my skills as both a language and cultural translator; but we all learned to adjust and became aware of our distinct strengths in communication,” she said.
The lessons learned from her trip to India solidified Deshpande’s interest in public health.
She has since become involved in research with Lauren Hale, a professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine, working with her to determine the relationships between varying daily factors and sleep in young adults. In a separate study with Hale, Deshpande is exploring the relationship between general well-being, the impacts of COVID-19 physically and emotionally, and sleep outcomes.
Aside from her research, Deshpande, an Honors College student, immerses herself in stewardship.
For the past three years, prior to her Indian research, she has been a member of Camp Kesem, a national, nonprofit organization for children whose parents have been affected by cancer. While serving as a counselor, volunteer coordinator in charge of recruiting and training counselors, and a teen leadership program coordinator, Deshpande developed programs that foster campers’ leadership and communication skills through coping as children of parents with terminal illnesses.
This year, she became one of two student directors at Camp Kesem at Stony Brook University.
“I have seen what a community Kesem provides for these kids, and as a director, I am able to have an integral role in coordinating and creating such an environment for this vulnerable and underserved population of kids,” she said.
“My passion for this community has really tied into my passion for public health and learning from communities to become someone who can better equip them and help them in any way that I can.”
— Glenn Jochum