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From pipettes to policy, science educators advocate for change via communication

(Kimi Jung/Daily Bruin staff)

By Sam Mulick and Archi Patel

May 27, 2024 9:45 p.m.

When scrolling through social media, Neha Gupta and her roommates often come across several diets. Like many college students, after seeing accounts promoting diets such as one of bacon, eggs, butter, beef, ice cream and intermittent fasting, they were confused about what to eat.

To address these concerns, Gupta is teaching a class this spring – titled Medicine 88S: “An Apple a Day: Examining Nutritional Literacy through the Lens of Fad Diets” – which focuses both on increasing nutritional literacy and developing practical ways to implement a healthier diet. In addition to Gupta’s class, a variety of new classes offered this quarter seek to transform scientific knowledge into social advocacy.

“A lot of these diets we are not necessarily taking apart and seeing if they’re good or bad,” said Gupta, a fourth-year physiological science student. “We’re more so criticizing the way they’re presented as complete truth and thinking about the motivations of the content creators who are putting forth these diets.”

The class is a part of the Undergraduate Student Initiated Education program, which allows select juniors and seniors to teach a lower division course under the close supervision of a faculty member, according to the program’s website.

Another class focusing on linking scientific knowledge to advocacy is Disability Studies 19: “Sexual and Reproductive Health Care for People with Disabilities,” taught by Lauren Clark, a professor at the UCLA School of Nursing. The class follows the story of Sara Gordon, a woman with developmental disabilities who became pregnant and had her child taken by child protective services, Clark said.

She added that she was inspired to teach the class after working on a paper about reproductive rights for people with disabilities.

“This whole legal train of removing children from disabled parents is commonplace, and it’s rooted really in the ableist beliefs of physicians and nurses about what is a ‘good enough’ parent,” Clark said. “How do we interrogate bias and support and accommodate parenthood like we do other life experiences when people have developmental disabilities?”

In the class, students analyze the biases and policies that impacted Gordon week by week and practice advising her on topics such as contraceptive options from Planned Parenthood’s website, Clark said. At the end of the course, students will give short public lectures on topics related to sexual health for people with disabilities, she added.

Clark said she hopes her course will better prepare students to be better future healthcare providers for disabled patients.

“It’s my goal that students learn about disability at school so that they’re informed consumers at UCLA and know about disability-related resources,” she said. “They also can see that accommodations apply across the board in society, education, health care and so forth.”

Like Clark’s course, Disability Studies 19: “Understanding Autism Spectrum and Neurodiversity” focuses on medical and media portrayals of austism spectrum disorder. This course dives into scientific and societal conversations around autism as well as other types of neurodiversity, said co-instructor Dr. Linda Demer, a professor of bioengineering, physiology and medicine at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

The course incorporates guest speakers with autism who share their experiences navigating education, health care and society, Demer said. Students engage with complex topics such as regulations impacting autonomy and dealing with social stigmas, she said. Hearing directly from those with lived experiences of autism allows students to understand how these individuals advocate for themselves and their community, Demer added.

It is important for people, especially college-aged students, to be informed about the perspectives and barriers that neurodivergent people face, Demer added.

“I think it (this class) will change their lives,” she said. “They’ll understand when they interact with somebody who has some form of neurodiversity, they will not judge them or be afraid of them or exclude them.”

Other courses examine broader issues of environment and health. Civil and Environmental Engineering 19: “Impacts of Factory Farms on Community and Planetary Health” takes a science-based approach to the environmental and social impacts of industrial animal agriculture and factory farming, said instructor Jennifer Jay, a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Students learn about quantifying climate change, biodiversity loss and nitrogen pollution and how activities in industrialized food systems contribute to these issues, Jay added. This knowledge is crucial because new food systems are necessary to maintain global health, she said.

The class requires students to take civic actions, such as writing to elected officials or government agencies about updating their animal feeding regulations, Jay said. She added that she values teaching an interdisciplinary class combining environmental science, public health and environmental justice because it produces engaged citizens who can advocate for critical changes.

“I do want them (students) to realize that they can be changemakers,” she said. “Then they use their educated voice to advocate for some sort of change.”

Taking a smaller-scale approach, third-year public health student Mariko Hashimoto’s course focuses on improving individual habits. Hashimoto, another student facilitator in the USIE program teaches a class – Public Health 88S: “The Future of Nutrition in Your Ancestor’s Kitchen: Obesity Prevention with Traditional Foodways” – about healthy eating habits, with the goal of simplifying dietary information into its tangible biological benefits.

The class discusses how choosing traditional diets inspired by the cuisine of other countries can support gut microbiota and overall health, she said.

“It focuses on how these traditional foodways can be good for people’s health, while also helping them to reconnect with their culture, cook with foods that they’re familiar with and create that sense of cultural pride,” Hashimoto said.

As part of the class, students created a healthy recipe using culturally traditional food and interviewed their grandparents to find out what foods they ate growing up, she added.

Hashimoto said she was inspired to create the class by new research that found proper feeding of gut microbes could help in preventing illnesses prevalent in the United States, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression. She added that she hopes students will think more about how minimally processed, fresh produce can be made more accessible to underserved communities.

One example the class highlights is how schoolchildren in Japan eat the traditional food that is provided for them at school, which expands their palates and instills healthy eating habits, Hashimoto said. Serving soup at lunch, for example, is closely linked to the country’s low obesity rate of 4.5% – a fraction of the U.S.’ 43%, said William McCarthy, an adjunct professor of health policy and management who oversees the class.

McCarthy added that there is also an economic incentive to transform the American school lunch system.

“They (Japan) spend 30% more per capita on school lunches than we do,” he said. “But they save an immense amount of money downstream from the great reduction in obesity and obesity-related diseases like heart disease and cancer.”

Gupta said her class also included interactive elements, such as a project in which students present a diet online like a social media influencer would.

It is important to verify information on social media, as getting dietary information from these platforms can lead to a biased, limited perspective, Gupta said. Social media websites tend to show content that will increase one’s engagement and have no incentive to reflect scientifically accurate content, she added.

Jay said she hopes students become more active in speaking out about injustices and wrongs. Successful advocacy starts in the classroom but then goes beyond it, requiring active engagement from students, Clark added.

“Advocacy is huge,” Clark said. “If we really believe education prepares an educated citizenry to participate in building a better society, it’s part of what we do.”

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Sam Mulick
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
Mulick is a news contributor on the features and student life beat. He is also a third-year sociology student from northern New Jersey.
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