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Undergrad Research Helps Local Groups Improve Health

Experience Puts Students into Community

Michelle DiCiaccio
In partnership with the Lowell Food Security Coalition, senior community health student Michelle DiCiaccio researched the availability of healthy food for people who live in the Acre section of Lowell.

By Karen Angelo

Senior students have helped community organizations make data-driven decisions on health issues such as, tobacco use, youth violence, access to healthy food and more. 

Forty-eight senior students from several majors, including community health, nutritional science and clinical laboratory science, conducted eight projects with local community organizations during the fall semester. The service-learning projects were a requirement for the course Introduction to Epidemiology – the study of patterns of disease and injury in human populations.

“Research data alone can be dry to students but if they apply it to real-world problems and see solutions for improving lives, that’s when true learning takes place,” says Asst. Prof. Leland Ackerson who taught the class. “Working as a team with people in the community and collecting data to inform decision-making are marketable skills that can be applied to any career.”

Creating Bonds With Community Partners

The community partners included the Lowell Health Department, the Lowell Housing Authority, the Lowell Community Health Center Teen Coalition and the Merrimack Valley Food Bank. 

The program director of the Merrimack Valley Food Bank, Suellen O’Neill, was impressed with the professionalism of the students and their knowledge about the people they serve. 

“The students were extremely thorough in developing and writing the questions used in the survey,” says O’Neill. “We have incorporated the study results into two grant proposals that we are submitting to funders.”

Another student group worked with the Lowell Food Security Coalition to conduct a survey that measured the affordability, availability and quantity of healthy food in the Acre section of Lowell. 

“Creating bonds with local coalitions and organizations has helped me see the resources out there and gives me a better understanding of what I would like to do after my time at UMass Lowell,” says Michelle DiCiaccio, a senior community health student. 

The team’s research showed that while there are affordable options for getting healthy food in the Acre, these options are not always the most convenient or easiest to access.  Their recommendations included properly marking bus stop locations and making sure that sidewalks and crosswalks are maintained so that people can travel safely to local markets.  

“I learned far more by going out and meeting local store owners and hearing what they have to say rather then sitting in a classroom thinking of ways to create prevention strategies or solutions to health disparities,” she says. 

Meaningful, Rewarding Learning Experiences

The students’ projects may have ended but their research continues with each of the partners.

“Our project was a only a small portion of the coalition’s ten-year plan to end hunger and homelessness but even that was rewarding to experience because they will be using our methods to continue assessing the other sections of Lowell,” says DiCiaccio.

“This was the most interesting and rewarding project I have ever been a part of through my undergraduate experience at UMass Lowell. I owe a great deal of thanks to my professors who made this possible. They truly care about making sure students are learning through experience and not just through lectures.”