New DGHI Postdoctoral Fellow to Study Women’s Health in the Dominican Republic

August 18, 2009

Her work in marginalized and underserved communities in the U.S. and abroad led Jennifer Toller Erausquin, one of DGHI’s newest postdoctoral fellows, to pursue a career in global health.  After graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in psychology, she worked as a paramedic and a volunteer at a free family health clinic in Detroit, Michigan. This opportunity allowed her to interact with Hispanic patients who came to the clinic seeking help, oftentimes with no insurance or plan for improving their health. These experiences heightened her interest in social and economic contexts affecting health.

“It was clear to me that an individual approach to health can’t be our only approach,” said Erausquin, who emphasized that health is a larger societal issue that requires attention from a variety of dimensions. She believes communities may hold the solutions. “For both infectious diseases and chronic conditions in the U.S. and abroad, the evidence is mounting that social and economic environments in which people live are important determinants of health and well-being.”

She went on to earn master and doctorate degrees in Public Health at the University of California Los Angeles. While working with the Los Angeles County Health Department to engage immigrant Latinas in sexually transmitted disease prevention,  Erausquin was inspired by the women she met.  “Many of the women were making sacrifices in their lives in order to better their families, but they didn’t always put their own health first,” said Erausquin. “I just want to help women attain the health and well-being they deserve, for themselves and their families.”

Erausquin’s dissertation examined HIV knowledge and preventive behaviors among women in the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The two countries, which share the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, have some of the highest HIV rates in the region.  As a means to better understand women’s vulnerability to HIV, Erausquin used quantitative, multilevel models to examine the associations between individual characteristics, intimate relationship dynamics, community sociodemographic characteristics and HIV-related outcomes. Erausquin’s study was the first known multilevel study of women and HIV-related outcomes in the Caribbean region.

During Erausquin’s two-year fellowship with the Duke Global Health Institute, she will continue her research in the Caribbean to understand why and how community is important for women’s health. Working with local NGOs, she will use a qualitative approach to investigate how women in the Dominican Republic conceptualize community and how they perceive their communities as affecting their health and health behaviors. Erausquin said, “Is it schools and churches; is it the women they see in the neighborhood markets, or the women they talk to at the laundromat? Once we’ve identified what ‘community’ is, we can look into the mechanisms by which communities impact health.” The goal of her project is to design effective health interventions that build on existing relationships and community institutions, and are culturally consistent and sustainable.

DGHI Member Kim Blankenship, who leads the DGHI gender, poverty and health signature research initiative, will serve as her mentor. Blankenship is Associate Research Professor in Duke’s Department of Sociology. She has mentored almost a dozen doctoral students since 2004 because she believes it’s a worthwhile investment.

“A postdoctoral program provides an opportunity to develop people who are interested in issues of global health,” said Blankenship. “Everyone benefits from that exciting energy of new thinking and new people. I see her cohort and cohorts to come as part of that process.”

Jen’nan Read, Director of DGHI’s postdoctoral program, is also excited to have Erausquin on board. “She’s working on an interesting area of the world that extends the presence of DGHI into new realms, and her substantive focus fits perfectly with DGHI’s signature initiative on gender, poverty and health.”

In addition to her project in the Dominican Republic, Erausquin plans to assist Blankenship with her research on the health of sex workers in India, and will teach a class in the Spring 2010 semester.

Erausquin says she’s excited about her fellowship, and the opportunity to continue exploring the ways in which social environments affect health. She hopes her career in global health research will drive sustainable change for women’s health throughout the world.  That promising career is one that has only just begun.

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Jennifer Toller

“Many of the women were making sacrifices in their lives in order to better their families, but they didn’t always put their own health first. I just want to help women attain the health and well-being they deserve, for themselves and their families."

Jennifer Toller Erausquin

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