An ambitious new set of initiatives is teaching students the fundamentals of effective public writing. Their work is helping to shape critical cultural conversations.
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Quinn White ’23: Studying Trends Through an Ethical Lens
Quinn White ’23 was looking for some positive trends from the pandemic. Last spring, she began researching the use of online “telehealth” to deliver mental health services—a practice that has expanded rapidly during the past two years.
To test her skills as a science communicator, White decided to write an essay about her findings for a national contest focused on science and human rights.
“There was so much negativity, and I wanted to find something positive coming from the pandemic,” she says. “I had heard of this huge shift occurring to telehealth, and I thought it was an important moment to capture.”
White’s essay, “Will Telehealth Revolutionize Access to Mental Health Care?” won the undergraduate award in this year’s Human Rights Essay Contest sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The annual competition recognizes “outstanding analytical essays written by students on any topic at the intersection of science or technology and human rights.”
That’s an intellectual space where White—who is majoring in statistical and data sciences—feels comfortable.
“I love learning in different areas that intersect,” she says. “I want to go into public health, so the science communication side is really important to me. I’m also interested in ethical considerations and issues of equity.”
In her essay, White uses the lens of health disparities to explore the impact of telehealth on mental health services.
“Effective mental health care should be a human right for all, not a luxury for the privileged,” she writes in her opening paragraph. “Fortunately, delivering care through telehealth services offers promise for increasing the accessibility of mental health among underserved populations. Still, we must consider the limitations of telehealth for resolving disparities.”
White says she wanted to examine both the benefits and the drawbacks of providing mental health care through digital technology. “I didn’t begin with a preconceived thesis,” she says. ”Uncertainty and gray areas are what draw me.”
Randi Garcia, assistant professor of psychology and statistical and data sciences, praises White’s approach.
“Quinn was always interested in the nuances of research designs,” says Garcia, who had White in her Interterm research design and analysis course last January. “Her attention to important details and accuracy will serve her well as a science communicator.”
White—who always makes a point of reading the methods section of any scientific study— says writing research papers for multiple Smith classes helped her feel confident about analyzing data and shaping arguments for her essay.
“Something else Smith does really well is include the ethical element—understanding how you make choices based on your own biases,” she adds. “Every statistics class I’ve had here has included a discussion of ethics.”
White’s essay includes discussion about:
· how telehealth can improve “client-provider fit” by expanding the number of provider options. This is particularly important for clients of color and gender and sexual minorities, she writes, who may experience discrimination and “may fear stigma from medical professionals.”
· ways that existing health disparities limit the potential of telehealth, including the current dearth of psychologists of color, and a “digital divide” that keeps many rural and low-income patients from accessing health services online.
· the importance of recent regulatory changes “that loosened previous [Medicare and Medicaid] restrictions and enabled telehealth appointments to be covered at the same rate as in-person appointments.”
White hopes her essay—which may be published at some point—will help “start a conversation about how we think about telehealth so that we don’t treat it as a cure-all, but we see it can help us.”
“At a time when there’s so much misinformation, communication about science is so important,” she adds. “There are always more questions to ask.”