By Katarina Fiorentino Klatzkow
Alexandra Rodriguez, M.P.H., a public health Ph.D. student in the University of Florida College of Public Health and Professions, has been selected for a prestigious leadership development program with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, led by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. As a member of the program’s seventh cohort, Rodriguez is the first student at the University of Florida to have been selected for this distinction.
The Health Policy Research Scholars program funds and trains doctoral students to use discipline-based research to shift policy and advance health equity. Selected students are a cohort of leaders and changemakers from underrepresented backgrounds dedicated to creating more just, healthy and thriving communities.
Throughout the four-year program, scholars engage in policy and leadership trainings via online courses and seminars, establish professional connections with public health and policy leaders, and network with other cohort members to advance a culture of health.
Rodriguez, who is pursuing a Ph.D. with a concentration in social and behavioral sciences, is passionate about the connection between arts and health. She has contributed to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention field guides on how to use the arts to promote vaccine health and launched a grant-funded mural-based vaccine confidence project in Gainesville that doubled as educational and vaccine administration sites.
Rodriguez describes her research interests, her career goals and how her role as a RJWF Health Policy Research Scholar will help her go greater in her community and beyond.
What made you want to be a Health Policy Research Scholar?
Through my work with the University of Florida’s Center of Arts in Medicine, I have looked to work from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for strategies and mechanisms to improve health in a multidimensional way. Notably, the foundation prioritizes building a “Culture of Health” by centering both health equity and interdisciplinary action in its focus toward solutions.
I became interested in the Health Policy Research Scholars program because it would afford me the opportunity to learn techniques for visioning and forming practical steps as it pertains to informing and influencing policy based on my research. In my own research, I am committed to disrupting and reimagining inequitable structures which negatively impact social determinants of health while realizing that this requires a continuous, reiterative practice of cultural humility.
What does this recognition mean to you?
Being selected as a Health Policy Research Scholar has been surreal. I feel incredibly honored that this program sees the value in amplifying my perspectives and research as it pertains to health equity, community based participatory research, and arts in health. On a personal level, my biggest supporter, my dad, passed away several years ago, and I hope that this recognition makes him proud.
Can you describe some of your research interests and most recent projects?
The opportunity to sustain healthy communities, that are not only well-functioning but are thriving, is what drives my passions and research. Recently, I led a collaborative perspective article which amplified research supporting arts engagement as an opportunity to address mental health inequities. Our hope is to further actionable change as it pertains to ameliorating the mental health crisis in marginalized communities which has been exacerbated by COVID-19. To further this work, I am collaborating with a team to conduct a scoping review considering studies that have utilized community based participatory research and arts participation to address adolescent mental health.
As a National Research and Impact Associate with One Nation, One Project, a national arts and health initiative, I have had the opportunity to join the national design team and act as a liaison for both Chicago and Gainesville. Both cities are centering their work on mental health. Chicago is implementing one-year artist apprenticeships at city-run mental health clinics while Gainesville is hosting community art events focused on themes of youth gun violence, safety, and mental health in the community. I find myself continuously inspired by the diverse stakeholder committees I get to work with in these communities and their collaborative curiosity as they guide this work.
How do you hope this program will help you in your career?
I aspire to continuously learn from my community and from those who have been disenfranchised. In my career, I hope to both teach and conduct research in an academic setting with the intent of utilizing research to continue to capture the impact the arts can drive forth in improving the public’s health. With that, I am grateful that the Health Policy Research Scholars program can help to catalyze my goal of driving lasting, sustainable change through a focus on building evidence-informed policy.
Working in this field has broadened my purview to not only its transformative potential, but also the scale of what is possible when disciplines come together to address public health challenges. This work starts with collaborative leaders, but it is sustained by empowered communities.
To learn how you can implement arts into your health and wellness practice, view Rodriguez’s article “Arts engagement as a health behavior.”