Purdue public health student gains global perspective of maternal health research in Italy study abroad

Written By: Rebecca Hoffa, rhoffa@purdue.edu

Students gather around Trevi Fountain to pose for a photo

Students in Associate Professor Andrea DeMaria’s maternal and sexual health study abroad program pose for a photo by Trevi Fountain in Italy.(Photo provided)

From the Dolomite Mountains to the famous Trevi Fountain, Purdue University Department of Public Health student Sophie Shank has immersed herself in Italian culture as part of the College of Health and Human Sciences’ seven-week study abroad program “Investigating Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Health Issues in Florence, Italy.” Led by Andrea DeMaria, associate professor of public health, the program explores topics in maternal and sexual health in Florence, Italy, through an intensive research project.

Sophie Shank poses with mountains in Italy

Sophie Shank(Photo provided)

“I’m really interested in global health,” Shank said. “I love research, and I think that’s something I want to continue doing in the future, especially with other cultures. I thought this (program) was going to be a cool opportunity to do research in a new environment and a new culture, and it has been that. It has been awesome.”

The 24 students participating in this year’s study abroad program are divided into six groups, each studying a different topic within the theme of pregnancy and postpartum experiences in Florence. Shank’s research topic focused on pregnancy and postpartum workplace policies, exploring maternity and family leave experiences and the effect they have on women in Florence. While the first week of the study abroad program was focused on exploring and acclimating to Italy, over the course of the remaining six weeks, Shank participated in the entire research process. She recruited and interviewed participants, transcribed and coded the interviews, analyzed the results, composed a collaborative research paper, and presented the findings.

In addition to the research project and her coursework, Shank also had time to explore Italy’s distinct offerings, from tourist attractions to events. For Shank, the study abroad experience had been years in the making — since she was in high school.

“I actually knew about this program for a long time,” Shank said. “When I was looking at schools to apply to, I knew I wanted to study abroad, and I came across Dr. DeMaria and this program — it was one of the drivers that made my decision.”

While it is a quicker timeline than she’s had in the past, the study abroad program isn’t Shank’s first introduction to research. For the past year, Shank has been a part of DeMaria’s Interdisciplinary Women’s Reproductive Health Collaborative, working on a research project to investigate health care and uterine fibroids, or growths within the uterus that are typically non-cancerous. Shank’s role included interviewing health care providers to understand disparities in uterine fibroid treatment options.

“After her first semester in getting acquainted with the project, learning skills and observing data collection, the next semester, she felt confident and comfortable collecting data and taking a leadership role in the writing,” DeMaria said. “I’ve seen that experience translate well here in Italy. Many of her peers are looking to her as a peer mentor and for feedback on their writing.”

Shank and other students in the study abroad program pose with plates of food after a cooking class.

During the study abroad program, Shank (right) and other students participated in an Italian cooking class.(Photo provided)

Although Sophie will be entering her third year in the public health major in August, she is on track to graduate with her bachelor’s degree a year early. Further, she was accepted into the combined master’s 4+1 program, which she will begin in the fall, to earn both her bachelor’s degree and Master of Public Health by spring 2025. Shank said Purdue’s combined degree option in public health made her decision to come to Purdue even easier.

“I really love the public health program at Purdue,” Shank said. “I feel like I’ve built good connections with a lot of my professors in the department, and it’s kind of smaller than the other departments, so I feel like I know a lot of the students in the program already. I feel like I have a lot of support.”

DeMaria noted she’s eager to see where Shank takes her public health knowledge and training after she graduates. While many of the students DeMaria has mentored plan to take their public health education to professional school, Shank wants to work directly with communities.

“The sky is the limit for Sophie,” DeMaria said. “She is somebody who is intentional with her time and her purpose. I think that is going to carry her a long way. She is interested in filling this public health workforce need. What she has learned here, with all of the cultural competencies she is working on — the exposure to different ways of health and health care delivery — has been insightful for her. She is seeing public health all around her.”

While Shank is exploring the wide range of career opportunities available to her, she plans to use her degrees to make community advancements, whether in maternal health, food insecurity or another area of interest.

“I hope that I can reduce the issue I choose to tackle and improve the quality of life for people, especially those that are disadvantaged,” Shank said.