top of page

From theory to practice: minority background students study COVID-19 data on racial discrepancies

As the COVID-19 outbroke into Detroit this spring, Wayne State University junior Skye Taylor noticed something unusual. On social networks, many of her Black classmates who live or grew up in the city were “posting about death, like, ‘Oh, I lost this family member to COVID-19,’” explained Taylor. Yet, the depiction was diverse in Beverly Hills, a mostly white suburb 20 miles away from Wayne State University. “People I went to high school with aren’t posting anything like that,” Taylor described. “They’re doing well, their family is doing OK. And even the ones whose family members have caught it, they’re still alive.”

Statistics to address racial discrepancies in care and outcomes has been deeply inconsistent during the pandemic, and it isn’t available for most of these students’ communities, which disproportionately have no other option than accepting the impact of the virus, which is much more deadly when the basic medical necessities are lacking or not consistent.

But so how do COVID-19 infection rates and outcomes differ between these ZIP codes? Is it because of the city part they come from? She wondered. How do their hospitals and other resources compare?

Wayne State University student Skye Taylor wants to take a closer look at how mental health issues affect susceptibility to COVID-19 — “especially in the Black community, because mental health isn’t really talked about,” she says. Image credit Joy Taylor/California Healthline

This summer, as part of an eight-week research project, imagined and carried out by San Francisco researchers and funded by the National Institutes of Health, Taylor and other of her fellows will look at that question and other effects of the current pandemic. The contributors are “asking questions from a perspective that we desperately need, because their voices aren’t there in the scientific community,” pointed out Alison Gammie, who directs the division of training, workforce development and diversity at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.

Within this project, Taylor is one of the 70 participants from underrepresented backgrounds who are learning basic coding and data analysis methods to explore disparity issues, as the example she described.

It is not novel news that researchers from Black, Hispanic, Native American and other minority communities have long been diminished in biomedicine. Recently, efforts to diversify and expand integration in the field have made some progress, Specifically, people from minority backgrounds who earned life science PhD degrees increased more than nine-fold from 1980 to 2013. But this rise has not moved the needle at the faculty level yet.

On the other hand, the number of minority assistant professors in biomedical fields has dipped in recent years, from 347 in 2005 to 341 in 2013. And some of the academics who have entered public health keeps experiencing racial aggression and marginalization in the work field — or, after years in a toxic environment, silently decide to leave inaudibly exasperated by the everlasting isolation they experience.

“We need to focus on making sure people are supported and find academic and research jobs sufficiently desirable that they choose to stay,” claimed Gammie. “There have been improvements, but we still have a long way to go.”

Image credit United Negro College Fund

Raymundo Aragonez, a University of Texas-El Paso biology major, examines data analysis as a way to address confusion in the Hispanic community — including some of his family members who think the pandemic “is all a hoax.” Discouraged by misleading YouTube videos and rampant misinformation shared on the internet and many social media platforms, Aragonez, who aims to be the first in his family to finish college, said he hopes to gain skills to “understand the data and how infections are happening, so I can explain it to my family.”

He hopes to explore whether COVID-19 infection rates differ among people living in El Paso, those living in the Mexican city of Juárez, and those who frequently cross the border between the cities — like many of his friends and classmates.

In 2014, the NIH launched the Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity initiative, which offers grants to 10 undergraduate campuses that partner with scores of other institutions researching how to get poor and minority students to pursue biomedical careers.

Participants have the opportunity to engage in science and give back to their communities by studying and understanding what concerns them. Specifically, apprentices who take part in the initiative receive a salary and typically spend summers working in research labs. But when the pandemic hit, many labs were forced to shut down because of the distancing measures, therefore the experiments that were in progress or about to be carried out had to be abandoned. “People were like, what do we do? How do we do that remotely?” said biologist Leticia Márquez-Magaña, who heads the initiative’s team at San Francisco State University.

Leticia and the team at the University of California-San Francisco, who includes epidemiologist Kala Mehta, drafted a plan for students to work remotely with bioinformatics, population health and epidemiology researchers to collect and analyze COVID-19 data for marginalized populations, which usually refer to the BAME communities.

Gammie also encouraged the Bay Area team to expand the summer opportunity to participants across the US. From June 22 to Aug. 13, students will spend two to three hours online four days a week in small groups led by masters-level supervisors. They learn basic bioinformatics, such as computational methods for analyzing biological and population health data, and in particular R, a common statistical programming language that is created to collect and analyze data from public data sets. “I think of basic bioinformatics and R coding as an empowerment tool,” explained Mehta. “They’re going to become change agents in their communities, fighting back with data.”

Niquo Ceberio recently earned a master’s in biology at San Francisco State University and is leading a team of mentors in a summer program to help college students explore COVID-19’s impact on communities facing health disparities. (Julio Ceberio) / After spending much of her childhood in foster care, psychology major Willow Weibel is studying how COVID-19 restrictions affect the mental health of former foster youth and other young adults with traumatic backgrounds. Image credit Le Anna Jacobson/California Healthline

Bench science often takes years, whereas data crunching to solve problems offers a sense of immediacy, asserted Niquo Ceberio, who recently earned a master’s in biology at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and leads the team of supervisors. “There was this sort of limitlessness about it that appealed to me,” she added. Also at the same university, Willow Weibel, an SFSU psychology major, is studying how COVID-19 restrictions affect the mental health of youth and other young adults with traumatic backgrounds. Weibel spent much of her childhood in foster care before getting adopted into a Southern California family when she was 17. “I’ve grown to care about what other people go through in the system,” she said.

Mental health is a common research topic which is widely unknown in the research questions proposed by several students in Weibel’s group, including Skye Taylor, who is majoring in psychology with a minor in public health. While curious about disparities in Detroit-area coronavirus outcomes, she also wants to explore how mental health issues affect the virus’ susceptibility, “especially in the Black community, because mental health isn’t talked about,” she pointed out.

Having the opportunity to explore the thematic that matter to them daily is meaningful to students of colour. “It feels like science is something that’s been done to us or on us,” said Ceberio, who is Black and Latina, and grew up in Los Angeles, Miami and Las Vegas before moving to the Bay Area. “This experience allows them to do research that they feel is relevant based on the way they’re viewing the world. I’m trying to get them to trust their instincts.”

Importantly, studying and researching in a familiar area is also beneficial to the biomedical field, as trainees from underrepresented groups will more likely stay in biomedicine if they feel they are giving back to their communities or doing something with a tangible purpose. “We hope that this will inspire students to go on to be independent scientists,” concluded Gammie.

University of Texas-El Paso biology major Raymundo Aragonez sees data analysis as a way to address COVID confusion in the Hispanic community. He’s one of about 70 college students participating in a summer program funded by the National Institutes of Health, aimed at exploring the virus’s impact on communities facing health disparities. Image credit Miriam Aragonez/California Healthline


bottom of page