Spotlight on Service-learning: Andrea DeMaria

Andrea DeMaria is an associate professor who takes the ‘public’ in Public Health seriously. As an educator in the Department of Public Health her goal is to get scientific findings into the hands of the people who need it and those who can use it to positively affect policy concerning women’s health. DeMaria was set to become a Service-Learning (SL) Fellow, but unfortunately the shutdown prompted by the pandemic prevented her from completing her service-learning course as desired. This has not prevented her from engaging in projects that focus on community benefit and the dispersal of knowledge.

One of the projects she brought to Purdue’s campus and continues to develop with the help of graduate student, Alexandra Hughes, is the Pharmacy Vending Machine (PhVM) initiative. Hughes completed her undergraduate degree in genetics at Purdue, but as she finished her undergraduate studies Alexandra realized she didn’t love what she was doing. The aspects she enjoyed were the research, science, and especially human connection.

“I enjoy looking into why people make certain decisions and those decisions impact their health,” commented Hughes.

Knowing what kind of projects, she now wanted to pursue she researched professors and was drawn to Dr. DeMaria’s line of investigation. As luck would have it, she ran into her at Society Yoga (a woman-owned local business) after having emailed her with the interest of helping DeMaria with her research. Hughes started working with DeMaria two weeks later and continues to do so as a graduate student in her lab.

During a research-based study abroad program in Italy, DeMaria and her students noticed vending machines stocked a selection of pharmaceuticals including a variety of contraceptives. During the pandemic, DeMaria was unable to repeat the study abroad experience for a different class of students. Having piqued her interest from her last visit, she focused on developing an idea for what a similar service could look like on Purdue’s West Lafayette campus. The planning began in the summer of 2020 and by 2021 the first of the vending machines were installed.

“In 2021, two PhVMs were placed on Purdue University’s campus to increase access to affordable and dependable 24/7 family planning items, cold/flu remedies, and other popular over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Now, there are a total of eight PhVms placed strategically across campus,” said DeMaria.

To grow this service, the PhVM initiative partnered with organizations like Boiler Gold Rush (BGR) to help inform new Purdue students to campus resources and services. The PhVMs have been a success, and have taken off through word of mouth. There is a need. Students and staff have been using the PhVM products. For example, the top sold item is emergency contraception, which costs about $14 in the machine versus $50 at a pharmacy. These vending machines provide affordable options for the Purdue West Lafayette community. Another example of items in the PhVMs are free tampons and pads, which also some of the most popular.

For Hughes, this was the first time she saw how students’ work could directly impact the greater community. DeMaria actively looks for ways to grow and increase student support for this initiative. She uses the PhVM initiative as part of her graduate course to help in address feedback and continue research. Other universities, such as Butler, are following their lead. DeMaria and Hughes are committed to sharing their knowledge in promoting access to healthcare needs that benefit the public.