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MPH student Olivia McCollum receives NIH Diversity Supplement with Global WACh to detect gut pathogens in young children in Kenya

Sarah Hemminger | February 21, 2024
8 minutes to read

University of Washington Department of Epidemiology (Epi) Master of Public Health (MPH) student, Olivia McCollum, highlights the importance of National Institute of Health (NIH) Diversity Supplements as a valuable resource to minoritized graduate students whose backgrounds contribute diverse perspectives to global research. Diversity Supplements recruit and support eligible individuals, including those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, individuals with disabilities, and those from economically or educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. By providing financial assistance, Diversity Supplements aim to foster a more inclusive environment in academic research across various science and health disciplines.

McCollum, who received an NIH Diversity Supplement in 2023, is utilizing this funding to advance her research, exploring the application of biomarkers for the detection of gut pathogens in young children from Western Kenya.

Can you provide an overview of the NIH Diversity Supplement that you have been awarded, and what you have been working on?

Olivia McCollum

The Diversity Supplement I received is a smaller amount of money that a principal investigator (PI), and a student who identifies with any underrepresented community can apply for. That money is added to the existing parent grant of the PI you’re working with, and then it can fund you to do your research. The Toto Bora Trial is Dr. Patricia Pavlinac’s parent study and also the parent grant. Dr. Pavlinac is my thesis chair and the PI who I am working with for my Diversity Supplement.

Currently, the funding is helping support my thesis, where I am researching how we can use biomarkers to detect gut pathogens in young children. Specifically, I’m looking at intestinal fatty acid binding protein (I-FABP) and using that protein, and the blood serum concentrations of that protein, to see how the concentrations of these proteins differ between the pathogens present among all the children tested. I-FABP is a known marker for intestinal damage, which can be caused by one of the four pathogens we are testing, including Shigella, Giardia, Campylobacter, and Enteroaggregative Escherichia coli (EAEC). We’re looking at what those concentrations are, how they differ between kids with different pathogens, and see if we can find the connection between the two.

For this research, I am using data from the Toto Bora Trial, which looked at children from Western Kenya, in Kisii and Homa Bay. The study collected data from 1,400 children, from 1–59-month-old children.

What drew you to this topic?

I have always had a strong interest in maternal and child health. This project was especially interesting to me because of how it incorporated gut microbiome, gut health, and biomarkers. Being able to use a blood biomarker to detect intestinal gut damage and disease is so exciting to me. I-FABP is a fascinating biomarker; it has been used to look at Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, and different kinds of chronic illnesses. Resources to access diagnostics for bacterial infections can be limited in areas of Kenya. It takes a long time to get those cultures back, and it’s hard to get complex cultures completed. If these biomarkers are something that we can use to inform decisions for medication usage and make stronger supported diagnoses, that can make a substantial difference for kids and adults alike, but especially for the little ones who are more susceptible to severe illness. Overall, I’m excited to see how these kinds of biomarkers can inform decisions that have the potential to make a difference in low-resource settings.

What specific opportunities or resources has the Diversity Supplement and Global WACh provided you with, and how have they contributed to your development?

The supplement and Global Women Adolescent Child Health (WACh) have totally changed my trajectory as an epidemiologist and as a student. My mentors for this supplement and my thesis advisors, Dr. Pavlinac and Dr. Jennifer Slyker have been exceptional guides to me, and they are part of Global WACh. I am incredibly grateful to Global WACh for having amazing staff and people that are willing to help students work on things like this. They helped me learn what a real mentorship relationship is like.

As for the diversity supplement, I had never been awarded any sort of funding from a health institute, or funding from any institute. The Diversity Supplement itself has allowed me to really get down to business this year to focus on the research for my thesis and not have to worry about funding for the last year of my masters.

Can you share a specific achievement you have had as a result of the Diversity Supplement, and how it aligns with your academic and career goals?

The application process itself was a great process for me. Learning how to apply was important for my development as someone going into research, where I expect to be doing a fair amount of funding applications. I would also say that the research can get nitty, gritty and feel like a lot of science talk, so one of the most exciting parts of this for me has been learning how to present my work to people who are not familiar with it.

Have you faced any challenges during this experience, and how have you overcome them?

I would say the biggest obstacle for me was being open about my learning disability. I have attention deficit, hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and it is important for me as someone comfortable sharing their diagnosis to bring that out. Having ADHD makes it a bit harder for me to do certain things. My brain just works differently, so I realize that not being open about my diagnosis really affects me. Admitting to myself that this might be something I have to speak about openly to pursue a supplement like this was a little bit jarring. It was important to bring to the forefront more awareness towards women with disabilities, especially ADHD, which is commonly diagnosed in young boys more so than adult women. I want to become more comfortable with myself, and I also want to be a voice for people like me in research who might have invisible struggles. Initially, it was hard for me to apply for the supplement because I had to explain my qualifications, but it was incredible to see how many people were so supportive. That was one obstacle I did not expect to see, I thought it was going to be more like, “Oh, no, I don’t know how to code this,” or “my analysis isn’t running properly.” It was about accepting myself, for who I am and how I work.

How do you see your contributions impacting promoting diversity and inclusion in your community?

I identify as a woman with a disability, and I also work in science. That is integral to my identity and positionality. Luckily, we don’t see as much of a gender disparity in public health. There is a lot of male-dominated fields within Science Technology, Engineering. and Mathematics (STEM), but public health is a little bit more diverse, which is cool because feeling represented is important. However, people with disabilities are not prominent. I think that there’s a lot of stigma against people with disabilities because STEM is seen as a hard field to get into, and there are a lot of barriers. Being able to see other people in your field with a disability that is like yours, or someone who has a neurodivergence is incredible. I, unfortunately, did not have a role model to look up to in terms of seeing another woman with a learning disability going into STEM. I am sure there’s plenty of people that I know who have disabilities, but aren’t necessarily comfortable with being open about it, and that is fine. I wanted to be the person to open that conversation up a little bit more and just be like, “Hey, we’re here. We exist, and we can do just as good of a job as anyone else. We just might need a little bit more accommodation in certain areas.” I want to use my experience with the supplement and my thesis to promote the beautiful diversity that we have within public health and epidemiology to create a space that is for everyone.

What are your future career or research goals?

After completing my master’s this spring, I plan to pursue my PhD. Career wise, I would love to become a principal investigator who prioritizes having an open and inclusive team. I want to make sure that people who work with me know that they are welcome and valued. I have seen a lot of this behavior modeled within Global WACh, and that’s why I love working with them. I want to continue to foster that diversity within my work in the future, and then eventually become a professor towards the end of my career because I really love to teach.

What advice would you give students interested in applying for a Diversity Supplement?

I would encourage Diversity Supplement applicants or prospective applicants not to limit themselves. Don’t screen yourself out of it before you have a chance to apply, just put yourself out there. The application process can be a little bit daunting, but if you get to it early, you’re in a great position. A great place to look is the UW SPH Diversity Supplement-eligible grants database, explaining which PI’s have grants eligible for Diversity Supplements. I think that oftentimes the biggest limiting factor for us is ourselves.