Over the past few decades, medical care has veered in a new direction. In what’s called precision or personalized medicine, prevention and treatment strategies are tailored to the individual patient. This approach calls into question the concept of the “average patient.”
“In the past, average patient tended to be code for middle-aged white male,” says doctoral student Vanessa Kauffman. “In order to better understand health and disease, and prevention and treatment health care strategies, we need to have data that accurately reflects the U.S. as a whole and not just the privileged,” she says. In short, there is no average patient.
Kauffman is in her fifth year of her Ph.D. program in sociology and her dissertation explores women and minority perceptions of biomedical research and how that perception affects their participation.
“Distrust of medical institutions, a history of racial injustice, and language barriers are all possible reasons for why someone may decline to participate in biomedical research. Women and minorities have had a long history of being exploited by the medical establishment,” she says.
“Her research is animated by the desire to change things, to hear from people we don’t often hear from, so that medical research can be conducted in a way that’s fairer and more inclusive,” says Kauffman’s advisor and sociology professor Francesca Polletta.
A perfect fit
At UC Irvine, Kauffman has worked as a researcher for HELIOS, a health services lab based in the UCI Health Policy Research Institute. While there, she was introduced to the National Institutes of Health’s All of Us research program, which aims to make advances in precision medicine by collecting health data on a million subjects.
“We’re living in an amazing time. Researchers have the ability to collect and analyze an unprecedented amount of health data on a scale never seen before,” she says.
Her work with the All of Us program spurred her to reflect on her personal experience with biomedical research. After a family member was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), Kauffman enrolled in an observational study that studied the genetics of people who were related to someone with MS.
“I was initially hesitant. I was worried about giving researchers access to my genetic information and the possibility of a data breach. For me, the potential benefits that could come from the study outweighed my apprehension. This experience led me to think about how people reflect on or make sense of their involvement in medical research. Is participation based on a sense of civic virtue or altruism? And how do individuals from marginalized communities react to recruitment efforts, particularly groups that regularly experience institutional racism and/or exploitation?” she says.
“She’s always been interested in inequalities in health care. This project is perfect for her,” says Polletta.
While her dissertation research is a perfect fit in retrospect, it took Kauffman a few years to figure out where she was supposed to be. As an undergraduate at Temple University, where she graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. in political science, she served as a representative on a faculty committee.
“I had already been thinking about a career in academia and this was like getting a backstage tour,” she says.
When she graduated, she was convinced she wanted to pursue a Ph.D. She just wasn’t sure what direction to take.
Before heading to graduate school, she worked at a nonprofit that provided environmental education to children in Section 8 housing. She gained enough experience to start her own nonprofit, which combined environmentally-conscious art into environmental curriculum. When she returned to academia, she headed to the University of Chicago where she received an M.A. in social sciences. It was here where her path became clearer.
“It sounds super cheesy, but it felt like a coming home,” she says about her master’s experience with research and sociology.
After the University of Chicago, Kauffman came to UC Irvine to pursue a Ph.D. in sociology.
“It’s rare that your path leads you directly to what you initially pictured. It’s the unexpected bumps that lead you to exciting possibilities,” Kauffman says. “When I initially came to Irvine, I thought I was going to study immigration. It was through taking courses, receiving good mentorship, and thinking about the questions that really interested me that made me realize I wanted to study medicine and inequality,” she says.
Kauffman has thrived at UCI. Her MA thesis from UCI has already been published as a book chapter. She received the Associate Dean’s Fellowship from the School of Social Sciences, as well as an Outstanding Teaching Assistant Award. She’s presented papers at numerous conferences and received a pedagogical fellowship from UCI’s Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation, which she says has been one of the best experiences she’s had while at UCI. To top it all off, “She’s genuinely nice and fun!” says Polletta.
That kind of educator
Kauffman’s academic story would not be complete without highlighting her passion for teaching. In her first year in her program, she already knew she wanted to apply to be a pedagogical fellow.
“The Pedagogical Fellowship Program is a year-long interdisciplinary program with a supportive group of educators that share a passion for teaching and continuous improvement,” she says. She has also served as a peer mentor for three years and the peer mentor coordinator for two. “Teaching has helped me become a better communicator. For me, teaching and research go hand-in-hand. One of the reasons why I’m getting my Ph.D. is because I’ve had teachers and mentors that challenged my preconceived notions and nurtured a love of learning. I’ve always aspired to be that kind of educator,” she says.
Currently, Kauffman is in the process of collecting data for her dissertation and plans to graduate next year. After that, she intends to create a life in academia.
- Jill Kato for UCI School of Social Sciences