Agility as a student researcher led to a job on the frontlines of the opioid crisis

Lauren Ansong was in an uncomfortable position.

While earning her master’s in public health, she landed a prime internship with the Boston Public Health Commission and impressed them enough to be assigned one of their pet projects. It was a novel idea—locate mental health programs for young children in African American barbershops and beauty salons.

Lauren Ansong, MPH,18
Photo by Bill Ibelle

“The idea sounded really cool,” recalls Ansong, noting the long history of these businesses as gathering places for the Black community to discuss social, political and economic issues.

But there was a problem: when she took on the project, her research didn’t match the commission’s expectations.

“They had relied on their intuition,” she explained. “But my research contradicted that intuition and that was hard for me. They wanted me to provide evidence to support their project. While I was doing the research, I started having doubts about whether it would work, but when I started writing it up, I was sure it wouldn’t work.”

What was she supposed to do? After all, she was just an intern.

Her solution was to adapt. Ansong devised a way to adjust the project so that it was more responsive to the community, wrote an award-winning capstone paper, and parlayed the two experiences into a job that put her on the career path she had dreamed of.

On the frontlines

“I’m interested in innovation and public health problem-solving,” said Ansong. “This position allows me to learn about program development and fostering community involvement.”

Since graduating in 2018, Ansong has been working on the frontlines of the opioid crisis. As a School Outreach Coordinator for Project Here, her job is to work with middle school teachers to educate students before they get drawn into the quicksand of substance abuse. The basic premise of the program is that prevention is the most effective and cost-efficient way to fight addiction.

She notes that only 6 percent of middle school students have tried marijuana, compared to 56 percent in high school, according to education department statistics.

“There is a huge jump in substance use between middle school and high school,” she said. “So middle school is the time to equip young people with the information they need to make healthy choices.”

Project Here has developed an award-winning app that provides students with interactive scenarios and educational games, along with strategies to help children deal with stress. Meanwhile, the Project Here Toolkit provides teachers with lesson plans and other in-class materials.

Ansong’s role is to help recruit and train educators, while educating the program funders about what will work and won’t work from the teacher’s perspectives. She learned these sophisticated interviewing and communicating skills while completing her capstone project at Northeastern.

Transferrable skills

When Ansong was assigned the barbershop project, she had to quickly develop relationships in three communities—Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan—conducted a literature review on the subject, and established a methodology for collecting data from the field. Once she started conducting interviews and focus groups, she knew she had a problem on her hands.

The program that sounded so enticing to state administrators was not well-received in the community. From the state’s perspective, it made perfect sense to use these natural gathering places as a place to provide developmental services to children of in the African American community.

But the owners told her that barbershops and beauty salons are no place for children—they’re too disruptive and there are too many sharp objects and chemicals around for it to be a safe environment. Meanwhile, parents said they viewed these businesses as their “sacred space”—safe, confidential, and removed from the stress of everyday life.

Ansong mustered the courage to recommend a way to restructure the state project so that it meshed with the wishes of the community. In keeping with the idea of barbershops and beauty salons as sanctuaries, she suggested that the program be reconceived as providing emotional and educational support for parents and other caregivers. Instead of programs for young children, why not support groups, educational materials, and stress management workshops for parents.

She also suggested that the commission provide financial incentives for business owners, since hosting these non-revenue-generating activities could be seen as detracting from their business.

Ansong’s project won Best Capstone Project in 2018. She said the skills she developed—public speaking, building relationships, and learning a new subject on the fly—have helped her excel in her new job. But the most important lesson she learned was about listening.

“In my barbershop project, I prioritized the voice of the people, and I’m doing the same thing now by prioritizing the voice of the teachers,” she said. “It taught me the importance of thinking critically about the backbone of your project when you set out to be creative in public health.”