Finding the intersection between race and health

Rachel Almaw’s (she/her) dedication to research has resulted in remarkable work, for which she is being recognized with the Co-op Student of the Year Award for the Faculty of Health. She is a fourth-year student in the Health Studies program, with a minor in Gerontology. Rachel shares the various elements of working in a research lab and walks us through her passion for bridging the gap between health and race.


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Rachel has worked with the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences at the University of Waterloo for three co-op terms. During this time, she worked with the Mobilize Clinical Biomechanics Lab which focuses on research into osteoarthritis, specifically in the knee and hips. Osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common type of arthritis, affecting more Canadians than all other forms of arthritis combined. It results in the breakdown of joint tissues, including cartilage, the elastic material that covers and protects the ends of bones, which can cause swelling, stiffness, and pain in the affected joint(s). She was able to conduct research looking at racial inequities in osteoarthritis research. Rachel received the Hallman Undergraduate Research Fellowship Award during her work term at the lab.

She spearheaded a qualitative study on osteoarthritis among Black and white Canadians, which ultimately resulted in her carrying forward this research through her undergraduate thesis paper. Other than research, she worked on coding transcripts, contributed to scoping and systematic reviews and even presented at conferences.

 

Q: What made you want to work three work terms with the Mobilize Clinical Biomechanics Lab?

A: “I felt like the work wasn’t done. A lot of the research I was doing at the lab was specifically for marginalized communities living with osteoarthritis. Today there is a paucity of literature looking at that aspect of research. It was this idea that a singular work term wouldn’t address this really big problem. Instead of applying a band-aid solution, I wanted to keep coming back to refine my research. It is also my lifelong goal to pursue equitable health care for all, so that was the driving factor that had me coming back for the three terms.”


Q: Did you have any previous knowledge of osteoarthritis going into the work term?

A: “I vividly remember myself googling the definition of osteoarthritis before my first work term. I was not familiar with a lot of the topics and materials that I was going to be working with. However, as I got more involved with the position, I loved it. I found my new hobby and realized that it was going to be a huge part of my future. While I had no clue what I was getting into, I cannot imagine a future without research in it now.”


Q: Before you applied to this position, were you leaning in a different direction in terms of your professional interests?

A: “Prior to starting my work term with the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, I was very much on the track of medical school. But this co-op made me pause and reflect on my interests. I realized that research is something I want to pursue before going to medical school. I think the intersection of race and health is so important, and there needs to be more research on that. This experience fully shifted my future for the better. At this point, I am considering post-graduate opportunities because I believe that research is where I am at, and research is where I want to be.”

Q: What did you learn from this experience?

A: “I developed a repertoire of skills that I had neglected prior to this. Working in this position made me more confident and it helped me grow. I was able to figure out who I am, where I am meant to be and where I thrive. Overall, it helped me understand what the healthcare system looks like. I was able to see what it must be like for those living with chronic conditions and helped me approach things with more grace and kindness.”

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Q: What was your proudest moment during your co-op?

A: “I was able to present the research I had been doing with the Mobilize Lab to folks at Stanford University. I was able to share what it was like to interact with marginalized communities from the perspective of research and how recruitment methods need to be specific to the population. In addition, I was able to speak at a few other conferences, where I presented my work at a national and international level. I also won awards for my research, which was definitely a “pinch me” moment. All of this helped me realize that the work I am doing is very important and it is necessary to shine light on this problem space on a much larger scale.”

Q: What did it feel like to hold so much responsibility?

A: “The imposter syndrome was scary. As a co-op student, I assumed I would be too young to be doing any of this. Nevertheless, as time went on, I started feeling more confident in myself and I could tell that others around me were noticing it as well. I started getting recognized for my work by a lot of different people which helped me understand that my efforts were valuable. Holding this position really helped me reaffirm that the work I was doing is good and crucial.”


Q: How does it feel to win the Co-op Student of the Year Award?

A: “It feels surreal to be winning this award. I never thought that I could have won it. In my first year, I thought that it was an unattainable goal. Looking back on all of my work, it is very rewarding to win this. It’s so beautiful to be recognized on such a great scale by a school that is known for its co-op program. This is a great end to my undergraduate career.”


Here are some thoughts Rachel would like to share about her co-op experience at the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences:


Working in the lab helped Rachel discover her true passion for research in the space of health and race. Her advice to students looking for co-op opportunities is, “Network with the folks around you and see what kind of interests they have. Chat with them and become friends with them just to see where that takes you.”

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