MEET THE MIT BILINGUALS

Health Care Equity | Lia Hsu-Rodriguez '21

Lia's vision is to use her dual expertise in Anthropology and Biology in the public health and policy sector to reduce healthcare inequality.
 


Lia Hsu-Rodriguez, photo by Liz Wahid

"At MIT, Lia pushed herself into challenging scenarios as she strove to first understand and then to help correct some of the profound inequalities embedded in the U.S. heath-care system."



Over the course of her studies and her experience in biology and anthropology, Lia Hsu-Rodriguez has become keenly aware how economic and political systems influence individuals’ health outcomes. Some of that perspective came from deeply personal experience.

Her grandmother, an immigrant from Mexico who is not fluent in English, visited the emergency room frequently because of chronic pain, and Lia witnessed the machinery of the healthcare system try to process and dismiss her grandmother as quickly as possible. As a result, her grandmother became addicted to opioids, and at 16 Lia watched her grandmother detox in the family home.

“A lot of the ways I think about the way our healthcare system is informed by what she went through,” says Lia. “She went to rehab in her seventies for an opioid addiction that she shouldn’t have had in the first place, because the doctors didn’t care enough to fix [her pain] in a less dangerous way. I know that’s not a unique story at all. Things like what happened to her are very preventable.”

At MIT, Lia pushed herself into challenging scenarios as she strove to first understand and then to help correct some of the profound inequalities embedded in the U.S. heath-care system.

Living legacies

Some of her projects involve confronting the legacy of systemic oppression in the United States. One summer, she took part in a pilot program, the Community Outreach and Patient Empowerment Program (COPE), an organization that addresses food justice and health justice. She worked on the Navajo Nation, an Indigenous  reservation the size of West Virginia, where the history of federal uranium mining had left residents with a high frequency of various cancers. The reservation is also a food desert, where residents must drive an hour or two to reach a grocery store that is fully stocked with healthy food. What folks on the reservation do have access to are “convenience” stores that are stocked with processed foods high in salt, sugar, and chemicals.

As a result Lia says: “There is a really high prevalence of diabetes and childhood obesity among those who live on the reservation,” which includes land in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Because of the legacies of colonialism and historical structural racism, the lives of these Americans are marked by damaging systems far beyond their control.

After her work with COPE’s cancer program doing public health education and communication, Lia says, “The two-track work that I’m interesting in doing is to figure out how to combat these health disparities in the moment and also how to disrupt the systems that allow these disparities to happen in the first place.”

This work wasn’t always Lia’s expected path: she originally declared a neuroscience major after her first year at MIT, and at the time thought she would go to medical school. “But,” she remembers, “I felt like something was missing.” She wanted to shape a career that wasn’t strictly clinical — one that allowed her to work with communities and with community-based organizations.  As her vision emerged, she began to understand that to think and work the way she envisioned, she would need a course of studies that was broader than science alone.  
 


“With Bio I’m learning the scientific basis,” Lia says, “and with Anthro, I’m discovering how to approach illness and disease from a social science perspective a perspective that is grounded in the lives of people and our cultural and social structures.”


Opening doors

It was while working as a residential counselor at a summer program called Mathroots, a two-week MIT mathematics program meant for people from underrepresented backgrounds, that a plan suddenly clicked. Lia herself had attended Mathroots as a high school student and credits the program with leading her to MIT in the first place. Now, as an MIT residential counselor, another door opened for her when one of her co-workers talked to Lia about their studies in MIT Anthropology, and the possibilities of a joint major in Biology and Anthropology. 

“With bio I’m learning the scientific basis,” Lia says, “and with anthro, I’m discovering how to approach illness and disease from a social science perspective — a perspective that is grounded in the lives of people and our cultural and social structures.” 

Outside the classroom, mock trial has also been a big part of Lia’s MIT experience and her training in public presentation. She has been co-president of the MIT Mock Trial team for the last two years and has been co-captaining for the MIT team for the last three. The mock trial competitions were completely different from anything else she did at MIT: essentially, college-based mock trials simulate lower-court cases, enabling a team of students to prepare arguments as a “legal team” — developing strategy, doing the research and writing — and then to present their cases competitively in front of actual lawyers and judges.

Vision for the Future

After her graduation this June, Lia plans to take gain a few years experience in the health field before returning for graduate school. She aims to work in health policy — with a community organization or doing coalition building with different nonprofits. She then envisions pursuing a masters degree, followed by a career in the public health or health policy sector, where she can apply expertise from her dual majors and her discoveries in both the classroom and the field. 

 

Suggested links

MIT Anthropology

MIT Biology

Mathroots program at MIT

MIT Mock Trial

 


Story prepared by MIT SHASS Communications
Office of Dean Melissa Nobles
Editorial and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Staff Writer: Alison Lanier
Published 1 June 2021