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Making Connections in a Pandemic: Honors Students Help Launch the Health Humanities and Arts Research Collaborative

As a medical anthropologist, Honors Faculty Fellow Katie Rhine thrives on studying and building communities, especially in the wake of global health crises. In her research, Dr. Rhine has described the relationships and marriages forged by match-makers in support groups for people living with HIV in Nigeria. More recently, Rhine has become a kind of match-maker, herself.

In late spring 2020, Dr. Rhine met with her colleagues, Tamara Falicov, Associate Dean of the Arts and Humanities in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Teri Kennedy Associate Dean of Interprofessional Practice, Education, Policy, and Research in the University of Kansas School of Nursing, and Emily Ryan, Director of The Commons at the University of Kansas, to brainstorm opportunities for research collaborations between health professionals and scholars in the arts and humanities. "Ethics, culture, history, globalization, and creative expression are so obviously central to understanding how and why Covid-19 has had the impacts that it has had," Rhine said. "We felt a real sense of urgency to bring researchers together to find common ground and purpose." They came up with the idea for HHARC--the Health Humanities and Arts Research Collaborative--and began to comb through their address books for clinicians, faculty, students, and staff with interests in collaborative research on health-related topics.

At the same time that she was engaged in these conversations, Dr. Rhine's honors mentees were receiving disappointing news about cancelled study abroad trips, closed research labs, and postponed summer experiential learning programs. "Students worked so hard all year to access these opportunities, and they all just disappeared," Rhine said. "We were at a loss. I felt the same way about my own stalled research project in Nigeria. It was really hard."

Dr. Rhine and her fellow HHARC co-directors planned to host an open meeting in June to gauge interest in the health humanities and introduce researchers to potential funding opportunities. That's when she came up with the idea to invite honors students to serve as "scribes" in the session's break-out rooms. The more Rhine thought about it, the more she loved the idea of giving students a chance to be "flies on the wall" and witness how new research ideas begin to take shape. "What do conversations between clinicians, artists, and sociologists even look like? What do they have in common?" she thought.  When over 100 researchers and 10 honors students volunteers showed up to participate in that first meeting, Rhine knew that she was part of something special.  

After that first meeting, it was clear that honors students were going to be much more than just flies on the wall in the numerous events that followed. Fernanda Reyes for example, had already been working with Dean Falicov on a project about language revitalization for pre-teens in the Me’phaa speaking community of Lawrence, Kansas. This research opportunity gave Reyes the chance to bridge her interests in global health and medicine with her passion for studying Mayan languages and cultures in Guatemala. "This was a true collaboration from my first meeting with Dr. Falicov. As an undergraduate student, I did not expect to be so valued in a group of such highly respected faculty." Reyes said. "I started at the founding stages of the project and have learned so much from the other researchers on how to responsibly respond to an ongoing need in our community."

Likewise, Radhia Abdirahman found an opportunity to continue her work with HHARC over the academic year as the team's program assistant. She will explore, among other things, the possibility of launching an open-access journal in the health and medical humanities and help to support the formation of collaborative research teams across the KU campuses. Abdirahman's expertise was also sought out by faculty researchers, Marta Caminero-Santangelo, Elizabeth MacGongle, and Abel Chikanda, who are starting up a new initiative this year titled, Coming to the Heartland. This storytelling project documents the migration experiences of Latin American, Latinx, and African families in Kansas. Abdirahaman said, "Through Honors I have received mentorship from faculty and advisors who encouraged me to explore my interest in interdisciplinary studies and research. These experiences inside and outside of the classroom keep me engaged and constantly yearning for more. I am especially excited to get involved with the migration stories project this year; this opportunity will expose me to work being done in communities I hope to one day serve."

At the inaugural Take Care Tuesday event this past week, Dr. Rhine presented on her work with honors students involved in HHARC and the innovative ways students can make research connections with faculty, despite the barriers the pandemic has erected. While fieldwork, publications, and presentations are the more visible and celebrated dimensions of research, Rhine emphasized that there is a lot students can learn, even remotely, by working alongside faculty at these early stages of the research process. "Whether it is learning how to find money through grant writing, conducting literature reviews and archival research in online databases, or even just having conversations with researchers in fields outside the ones you are most familiar with...these are the building blocks of ground-breaking research."

In a round-about way, Dr. Rhine has moved from studying Nigerian match-makers to becoming one--for students and faculty looking for connections and news ways of understanding the world. "And really," Rhine concluded, "that's what makes the University Honors Program so unique. Students are here to change the world and they aren't afraid to take these intellectual risks. Faculty have a lot to learn from them."

Pictured: Honors student volunteers at our first HHARC meeting; and HHARC Co-Directors. 


Take Care Tuesdays and Living in Color are University Honors Program series that take a holistic approach to enhancing honors students' wellbeing at KU. They meet virtually every month and bring together students, staff, and faculty for programs that seek to cultivate a sense of connection and belonging. Read more about these initiatives here.


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40% of students in the University Honors Program conduct research before graduation
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