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Researchers launch network on health and society
Arturo Massol of Casa Pueblo speaks on life after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Researchers launch network on health and society

New initiative seeks to connect social sciences to health care and public policy

November 6, 2019 at 6:00pm

One day after Hurricane Maria devastated the island of Puerto Rico, Arturo Massol opened the doors of Casa Pueblo, the community non-profit he runs in the small mountainside town of Adjuntas.

“People started showing up because they knew we had power,’’ said Massol, whose organization later distributed more than 14,000 solar lamps to light up his community. “You shouldn’t have to die because of lack of power.’’

Many in Puerto Rico did die due to lack of power, unable to run respirators and other life-sustaining medical equipment. But in addition to the critical needs of power and water, Massol said he discovered something else was missing after the storm.

“We needed culture and community to return to some sort of normality after the crisis,’’ he said. “There was a lot of mental stress, a lot of tension.  So we had events designed to engage with the children and to bring some happiness to the town within the crisis.”

“We embraced culture as a means of survival,’’ he explained. “That is resilience.”

Massol, who was interviewed as part of an FIU study on the collapse in health care services in Puerto Rico after the storm, spoke at the launch of a new initiative at FIU, designed to link social sciences research with health care, medicine and public policy.

The Research Network on Health and Society – led by a team of researchers in the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies – will examine issues like access to health care and health care inequalities through the lens of economics, history, sociology and other social sciences.

It’s an area of research that has existed within the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs for years, said Mark Padilla, one of the lead researchers on the initiative, along with Nelson Varas-Diaz and Sheilla Rodriguez Madera.  

“The Green School has a growing portfolio of health-related research from the perspective of the social and policy sciences,’’ said Padilla, a medical anthropologist with extensive research experience in public health, including several studies funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  

“We’re talking about the social determinants of health, we’re talking about structural violence and issues that affect large populations in terms of health inequalities,’’ he added. “We’re talking about all kinds of issues that are related to health and wellbeing but are not necessarily clinical outcomes.’’

The research network will formalize that work, Padilla said, establishing partnerships across disciplines, providing training to students and faculty in qualitative research methods that are less commonly used in medicine or public health, and offer peer review of grant proposals and research projects.

The network will be housed within the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center, as the work will focus on disadvantaged and marginalized populations in the Global South, a term used to describe less-developed regions of the world, including areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.

“We often hear that the university is a solutions-based center and this research network is committed to providing solutions to the challenges that we face today,’’ said Frank Mora, director of LACC. “We are committed to this initiative. This network is growing and it will continue to grow.’’

Another project within the new network’s portfolio is the documentary film “Collapse,” which examines the politicization of the death toll in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. Directed by FIU professor Nelson Varas-Diaz, “Collapse” has already received seven international film awards. It was shown at the launch event for the research network.

“This is another way of reaching a broader audience and getting people engaged,’’ Padilla explained. “We often say that if you publish in an academic publication, six colleagues may read it. But a documentary like “Collapse,” with seven international film laurels, is going to be seen by thousands. It’s a way to shift the conversation and speak to policymakers in a different way.”

Community engagement is another significant aspect of the health and society initiative. The launch event included two photo exhibits that illustrate the power of connecting the community to social science research.

Neighborhoods of Refuge features work by persons experiencing homelessness in Overtown and other areas of Miami and aims to raise awareness about housing, community and equality. It is a collaboration with Camillus House.

The second exhibit, Mi Vida con VIH/My Life with HIV, was created by Latino and Latina activists/artists living with HIV/Aids in Miami, in collaboration with the community organization Pridelines. Both exhibits are on view in the Green School’s first floor gallery.

“This is a way to bring people’s real-life experiences into our work,” Padilla said. “We are not just doing some academic exercise. You allow people to tell their stories and they are more committed to what you are doing. And people are moved by stories as well as by statistics and numbers.”

Professor Mark Padilla discusses the Research Network on Health and Society.
Members of the community group Pridelines are recognitized for their work on the photo exhibit, Mi Vida con VIH/My Life with HIV.