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Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine

Student Q&A: Aparna Balakrishnan, MPH, MPA, Health Sciences Integrated PhD Program

Aparna Balakrishnan, MPH, MPA

Aparna Balakrishnan, MPH, a second-year student in the Health Sciences Integrated PhD Program (HSIP), studies how non-clinical services may impact treatment adherence for cancer patients who are part of vulnerable populations.

Where is your hometown?

I grew up in Baltimore, but spent the last seven years in New York City before I moved to Chicago. I'd lived in Indianapolis for a short time after college, but the last year in Chicago has been my first true introduction to the Midwest.

What are your research interests?

Broadly, I'd like to explore how access to and use of non-clinical services impact treatment adherence among underserved cancer patients in the safety net hospital setting. Safety net hospitals organize and deliver a significant level of health care and other related services to uninsured, Medicaid, and other vulnerable populations.

What exciting projects are you working on?

Right now, I'm trying to lay the foundation to work with outpatient oncology clinics at safety net hospitals to look at aspects of non-clinical support service availability and treatment adherence. Underserved cancer patients, including those who are under/uninsured, minority, immigrant and undocumented, face a lot of fundamental barriers, such as lack of language-appropriate information about diagnosis and treatment, unmet logistical and psychosocial needs, and food insecurity. These have the potential to really impact quality of care, quality of life and the patient's ability to adhere to life-saving treatment. My goal is to try and find out to what extent within-clinic services like professional interpretation, nutrition counseling, access to food resources, psychosocial services, and transportation assistance are available and how these can be harnessed to improve treatment adherence. 

What attracted you to the PhD program? 

I was drawn to the fact that the HSIP program offers a collaborative environment and allows for strong mentorship and student-faculty interaction. I appreciated that the program pushes students to get in-depth training in their track, along with exposure to other elements of social science research, to develop broad, applicable skill sets. I also found that when compared to more traditionally structured PhD programs, HSIP was the ideal setting to try and implement my research ideas.

What has been your best experience at Feinberg?

I was encouraged by a professor to turn a research paper I wrote into a manuscript for journal submission. I'd never considered it as an option and felt intimidated by the whole process, which was pretty new to me. But I went through with it, and every aspect of it (including the initial rejection) was a great learning experience.

How would you describe the faculty at Feinberg?

Faculty are open and encouraging. I have struggled to figure out how best to operationalize my research interests, but every faculty member I have met with has given me ideas and told me to stick with it. When a faculty member hasn't had a clear answer for me, they've sought out someone else who might. I really appreciate that kind of supportive environment and mentorship.

What do you do in your free time?

I've lived in Chicago for a little more than a year now, but am still getting to know the city. I've been trying to see everything it has to offer, which is a lot! Aside from that, I try to make time to read – I was an English major in college and have always loved fiction, especially classic literature.

What are your plans after graduation?

At this stage, I hope to take on a management role at an urban, health-focused nonprofit or a health administration role at a safety net hospital. My goal is to develop, implement and assess targeted programming for underserved and minority cancer patients, with a focus on educating patients and providers regarding the mediating role of non-clinical factors on treatment adherence. Ideally, this would lead to creation of a holistic cancer treatment plan incorporating emphases on language accessibility, food security, and other supportive services, to improve patients’ willingness and ability to complete prescribed treatment. 

Connect with Aparna on LinkedIn.