May 06, 2014 , BY Matt Hughes

Sarah Frank '14 has earned a Fulbright Grant to do health research among indigenous peoples in Mexico.

The road leading Sarah Frank '14 to southern Mexico is long and circuitous, winding its way through Costa Rica, Cincinnati and Lewisburg. Those are the places that have imbued in Frank both a love of the Spanish language and a deep-rooted desire to improve public health, dual passions she will put to work through a Fulbright Study/Research Grant to Mexico.

In August, Frank will travel to the lush Yucatán state to explore the dramatic rise in obesity and diabetes among an indigenous Mayan community. She will spend nine months there, her Fulbright Scholarship providing a round-trip plane ticket, living stipend and health insurance. The Fulbright Program, administered by the U.S. Department of State, provides a variety of research, teaching and education grants for travel abroad. Bucknell sociology professor Elizabeth Durden, an adviser to Frank and herself a former Fulbright scholar, noted the scholarship Frank received is particularly competitive.

"Securing an undergraduate research Fulbright is a tremendous achievement," said Professor Elizabeth Durden, sociology, a former Fulbright scholar who herself studied in Mexico. "The selectivity of being chosen to do research as a Fulbright scholar (in comparison, for example, to being an English TA Fulbright) cannot be overstated. These fellowships are extremely selective."

For 2014, 45 of 152 applicants were awarded research Fulbrights to Mexico. Frank's work will examine the ways in which both Western and local approaches to medicine have responded to treating obesity and diabetes, which have reached epidemic levels among the Mayans.

"Until 2007 the only health care option they had was a traditional healer, then a clinic opened that's staffed by three physicians," Frank said. "So there's this very interesting mix of traditional medicine availability versus new-to-the-area Western medicine.

"Are there certain demographics that are more likely to go to the traditional healer versus to the clinic," Frank questioned. "Are there certain symptoms that cause people to seek health care from one source versus the other? Are these two entities working together, or are their treatments conflicting?"

A biology and Spanish major with a minor in Latin American studies, Frank has already gained a personal appreciation of the critical cultural dimensions of public health through her time at Bucknell. She spent the fall semester of her junior year participating in a global health semester program in Costa Rica. There, she met a doctor who was trying to teach the local Mayan population to boil water before consuming it to kill pathogens. But the locals continually refused based on a spiritual belief that water is a source of life, and that boiling it would kill the life within.

"Instead they gave them salt tabs to purify the water, and it worked," Frank said. "Once they found something that fit in better with the surrounding belief system and customs, it totally changed the health of the community. A lot of times we come into an area with ideas about aid, but it doesn't work as well because it doesn't align culturally."

Frank has also worked at a Hispanic community center in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, where she helped organize a semiannual health fair (as part of a Bucknell Public Interest Program internship). And she helps tackle food insecurity locally through volunteer work with the Lewisburg Community Garden and hot-meal program, Community Harvest. | Read more about Frank's internship.

She said Bucknell professors encouraged and assisted her in applying for the Fulbright as well. Frank first learned of the program through an on-campus post-baccalaureate fellowship reception, and later contacted Durden, who helped her connect with the institution where she will be working, Kaxil Kiuic: Helen Moyers Biocultural Reserve. Durden herself received a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Award in 2008-09 and worked with the same institution.

Frank listed more than 10 additional professors and administrators who helped her along the way, including Bucknell Professor Fernando Blanco, Spanish, who video-chatted with Frank in Spanish to help her prepare for a panel interview conducted over Skype with professors in Mexico City.

"I have a really great support system here at Bucknell," Frank said. "When I've reached out to professors, all of them have been more than willing to give me a lot of their time."

At the end of her project, Frank will write reports in Spanish and English that make recommendations for culturally appropriate ways of giving care, and present those reports to the governments of the U.S. and Mexico. Diabetes and obesity are rising health concerns in the U.S. as well, and Frank hopes her research can help improve public health on both sides of the border.

"I think the health of the Spanish-speaking population in the U.S., although it may be taboo, is a huge issue and needs to be addressed," Frank said. "I think there's a lot that could be learned both by the U.S. and by Mexico from this project."

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