Summer Research Program alumni blog – Brianna Cusanno

Written by Brianna Cusanno, Institute for Public Health Summer Research Program alumna

Reflecting on the course my life has taken since I participated in the Institute of Public Health’s Summer Research Program, I realize that I now find myself in a position I never would have anticipated two years ago.

I knew in June of 2015 that I wanted my life’s work to focus on health equity, but I had vague notions of a career in policy-making or the nonprofit sector. I had never seriously considered becoming a researcher; for one, I grew up with learning disabilities that made school a struggle. What’s more, I had always believed that academia was far removed from reality, and that the implications of potentially transformative research were too often overlooked and abandoned as soon as grants closed-out. I did not see academia as an option if I wanted my work to contribute to positive, institutional change.

However, my summer at WashU changed all of this. The feedback and encouragement from mentors and peers helped me to develop the confidence I needed to view a career in research as a viable route. In addition, through our program seminars I became comfortable in the previously foreign world of fellowships, grants, and publications. Most importantly, the program exposed me to scholars who employed findings from rigorous studies to make real differences in their communities.

My principal investigator, Dr. Mary Politi, embodied the principle of using research to create positive change. That summer, I worked with her to design an online tool for uninsured Missourians that would help them learn about health insurance and select a good-fit plan through the ACA Marketplace. In addition to developing the survey protocol used to assess the tool’s efficacy, I also analyzed transcripts from an earlier qualitative study. This study solicited feedback from uninsured individuals and insurance navigators about a prototype of the tool. My analysis focused on participants’ responses to short narratives included in the prototype to illustrate the process of selecting a health insurance plan. 

As I tackled this project, I rapidly developed a passion for qualitative research. I loved the idea that I could spend my life listening to patients and amplifying their voices, and that my research could enable decision-makers to meaningfully consider patients’ perspectives when designing interventions and treatments. My summer experiences motivated me to explore qualitative research further by designing a qualitative study for my undergraduate thesis- which ultimately proved to be one of the best experiences I had during my undergraduate years. In addition, I was able to return to Washington University to work under Dr. Politi for a second summer, this time focusing explicitly on qualitative research projects.

In sum, my experiences at Washington University drastically shifted my perspective and goals. To my surprise, I learned that I loved research and that I could use it to support patients and advocate for changes that benefit them. I became inspired to follow in Dr. Politi’s footsteps, and developed the goal of educating physicians about communication skills while also conducting research on doctor-patient interactions.

Consequently, I chose to apply to graduate programs in Communication. In March, I got the incredible news that I was awarded a fellowship from the National Science Foundation, which will support me financially for three years of my graduate studies. Now I am about to begin my orientation at the University of South Florida, where I hope to obtain my MA (and potentially PhD). This program will allow me to focus particularly on qualitative methods and on work with participants from minoritized groups.

The Summer Research Program helped me to transform from a college junior with little interest in academia into a published scholar and National Science Graduate Research Fellow. I could not be more thankful for Dr. Politi’s mentorship, and for the incredible opportunities the Summer Research Program afforded me. I am confident that the Program will continue guiding students on their journeys to becoming curious, passionate, and successful researchers.