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Drug overdoses, firearm injuries, a cancer-causing virus, and social needs in health care delivery: this past spring, four University of Kentucky College of Public Health (CPH) students worked on research projects related to these important public health issues as part of the Spring 2024 Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

Brayden Ward, Mason Taylor, Ashley Grospitch, and Khushi Arora participated in the fellowship program, which is funded by the University’s Office of Undergraduate Research and provides funding for students as they to work with a faculty mentor on a research project.

Brayden Ward: Fatal Drug Overdoses

Brayden Ward’s research focuses on post-incarceration fatal drug overdose rates in Kentucky. Brayden is working with Dana Quesinberry, JD, DrPH, an assistant professor at the CPH and associate director of the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, to use publicly available data to examine fatal overdoses among individuals post-incarceration. The research aims to identify modifiable factors leading to the increased overdose risk.

When reflecting on his motivations for becoming a fellow, Brayden emphasized that he wanted to broaden his horizons.

“Going into this fellowship, I wanted to expand my experiences in public health research in a way that grew my skills both professionally and educationally, but also have the opportunity to make a difference in the community,” he said. “When Dr. Quesinberry reached out to me about this topic, I knew it was an opportunity to do both of those things, and I was immediately excited to get started.”

Dr. Quesinberry highlighted the importance of intellectual curiosity in research.

"An important characteristic of a researcher is having a curious mind. While we started with a topic that Brayden had no experience with, his natural curiosity became engaged with the complexity of the topic," said Dr. Quesinberry.

Brayden’s research work serves as an important starting point for addressing the intersection of incarceration, substance use disorders, and public health by identifying a population that is often overlooked in public health initiatives. By highlighting the correlation between incarceration status and increased overdose risk, Brayden's work emphasizes the need for targeted interventions and support services tailored to this demographic.

"Brayden provided an energy to a project that had been sidelined because of conflicting priorities,” Dr. Quesinberry said. “His preliminary findings have created a team energy around the data he wrangled and its potential to answer a number of research questions that will translate into both corrections and public health practice."

Brayden said, “This fellowship has given me an opportunity to expand my experiences in the world of public health research. I think that is the value of doing something like this program. Being exposed to so many real-work events as an undergraduate gives me an experience and knowledge I could not get in a classroom.”

Mason Taylor: Firearm Injuries

Mason Taylor's research project focuses on analyzing morbidity and mortality data related to firearm incidents in Kentucky. Mason is collaborating with Julia Costich, JD, PhD, Jacqueline Seals, DrPH, and Alaina Murphy, MPH, from the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center (KIPRC), to analyze the data and produce a manuscript summarizing his findings. This research aims to provide insights into the prevalence, patterns, and potential risk factors associated with firearm injuries in Kentucky.

Mason shared that his inspiration to pursue the topic of firearm violence stemmed from analyzing Kentucky injury trends from the past decade; he noticed a concerning increase in emergency department admissions related to intentional and unintentional firearm injuries.

“Mason was very enthusiastic about his topic and eager to work with the KIPRC team on a scholarly manuscript,” said Mason’s mentor, Dr. Costich. “Mason’s identification of issues related to firearm violence has mobilized a group of faculty and staff to initiate more focused and collaborative research on this critically important topic. I am not sure we’d be where we are in the development of this focus without his work.”

The research identifies patterns and risk factors associated with firearm incidents, advocating for comprehensive public health interventions to prevent injuries and fatalities.

“Firearm violence is a glaring public health issue in the United States that truly exists,” said Mason. “It is almost constantly seen in the media, but I do not believe individuals see it as a public health issue. Our research proves that firearm violence should not be a social norm but an area where public health interventions can help prevent it from occurring.”

Mason plans to pursue a career in public health, motivated by the diverse and interdisciplinary nature of the field.

Ashley Grospitch: Social Needs and Health Care

Ashley Grospitch's research project, conducted in collaboration with Rachel Hogg-Graham’s Team Up collaborative, focuses on developing a social needs screening and referral experiential learning opportunity.

Ashley’s research work examined models for delivering screenings and referral services and how students can be integrated into the work. Her work informed a model where UK HealthCare will work with students to support the referral process to community resources.

“I wanted to pursue this topic because creating a student program, in particular, provides a unique opportunity to increase awareness through both education and experience of the impact of the social drivers of health on health care outcomes,” shared Ashley.

Dr. Hogg-Graham praised Ashley's contribution to integrating student involvement into health care initiatives.  

“Ashley worked closely with our team to examine the roles students can play in social need screening and referral strategies,” said Dr. Hogg-Graham, DrPH, who is an associate professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy. “Her work has been used to build an experiential opportunity with UK HealthCare where students will support the population health team in their work bridging patients with unmet social needs to community resources."

She added that Ashley's efforts have not only enhanced student education but will also help improve social need referral outreach.

Reflecting on her time as a research fellow, Ashley shared, “Completing research this semester as an Undergraduate Research Fellow has been an immensely positive experience. Working on Dr. Hogg-Graham’s Team Up Collaborative, in addition to my Public Health Showcase experience, has reinforced my long-term interest in pursuing research as a career, and I hope to continue in this field after graduation.”

Khushi Arora: HPV

Khushi Arora’s research project focuses on tracking trends in human papilloma virus (HPV) positivity rates from 2000 to 2023. HPV is known to cause cervical cancer, but vaccines can prevent many other types of HPV infections as well. Khushi's study looks at how changes in HPV testing guidelines and the introduction of vaccination programs have affected the rates of HPV infections.

The importance of Khushi's research lies in its potential to show how effective these preventive measures have been in reducing HPV infections. By understanding these trends, public health officials can assess the impact of vaccination programs and testing guidelines on the spread of HPV and ultimately on the rates of cervical cancer. This information can help guide future public health policies and interventions aimed at further reducing the burden of cervical cancer and other HPV-related diseases.

“This fellowship program has allowed me to further delve into research and dig deeper into analysis of given data for my project,” shared Khushi.

She added that she gained valuable experience in navigating institutional review board submissions, conducting human subject research, and presenting findings at scientific conferences.

“She will be finishing off her work with me culminating in a quality assurance report that will be submitted for regulatory purposes summarizing the changing trends in HPV testing volume and positivity rates,” shared mentor Julie Ribes, MD, PhD.

After graduation, Khushi plans to pursue a career in medicine. In the interim, she intends to continue engaging in research. She added that being involved in research not only provides her with valuable insights but also enhances her ability to understand and interpret research conducted by others, which she intends to incorporate into her future medical practice.

Learn more about fellowship opportunities and undergraduate research here at .