My Friends in Mexico, the Very Best

When it comes to my study abroad experience, without a doubt some of the most important people in my life throughout the entire 8 weeks were the medical students from Universidad Panamericana. They were my main link connecting me with Mexican culture, and without them it would have taken me a lot longer to integrate to Mexico and the experience as a whole would be so much lonelier without them. From advice regarding the program itself to where the best places to hang out were during the weekends, the students became very valuable friends in such a short time and were incredibly awesome in showing us how to maximize my enjoyment in Mexico.

Several of my favorite moments and social outings in Mexico were only possible because they arranged them. After a long week of studying and doing research, they gave us exactly the breaks that I needed. I still remember the day that they took us to a karaoke bar, and my friends (both from NU and from Mexico) and I spent the entire night singing and dancing without a care in the world. And after that night, they took us to a famous Taco restaurant where we treated us to some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. That was one of the best nights in Mexico I’ve had this entire program, and they kept the excitement going weeks later with a night of salsa dancing (to put what we learned in salsa class to practice) and bowling night a few days later. None of this would have been possible without them, and for that I am forever grateful.

Even though we may have spent such a short time together, I will never forget the friends that I made and what they’ve done for me during this program. Adolfo, Montse, Fer, Andres, Anneke, Hilda, if you’re reading this, thank you for everything!

PH Mexico Final Goodbye

The Beauty of Mexico’s Artisan Markets

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No matter where you go in Mexico, you are sure to find some historical artifact or something unique that peaks your interest about the history of Mexico. In May, the Northwestern students studying abroad in Mexico City for Public Health had a weekend long workshop that taught us everything we needed to know about public health in Mexico and the dos and don’ts of living in Mexico. This workshop was essential in our weekend trip to Malinalco, where we aided students from UP Medical School in administering clinical studies on obesity in that community and was funded by a grant given to us by a 100k Strong Fund. While that in itself was such a rewarding experience, that weekend I was able to experience something else: Malinalco’s own Artisan Market. To be quite honest I wasn’t looking for it, I happened to walk straight into it when exploring the small town one day. Ever since that fateful day, however, in which I found that small treasure, I fell in love with Mexico’s artisan markets. I find that Mexico’s history can be perfectly summarized in its wide range of “Mercados artesanales”. Mexico City has hundreds of artisan markets in itself and each and every one of them is filled with history ready to be explored and magical experiences to be had. This past Sunday we went to the Ciudadela, the biggest Artisan Market in Mexico, in my and many people’s opinion. These markets have small shops with almost any trinket, food, candy, silver and jewelry you can think of. Not to mention prices are very negotiable. I mean what’s going to Mexico and not practicing your bargaining skills while you’re at it? What’s unique about Mexico’s markets, however, is that everything is hand made by the people who run the shop. They do not have any corporate connections and if you need to know specifics of what you are buying, you just ask the small shop keeper. What’s even cooler is the uniqueness of each individual shop and shop owner. If I could spend an entire day at an Artisan Market, I would find that it would not be nearly enough time to see everything and learn what each shop keeper has to say. Each shopkeeper has such a rich history in how they made their products and families’ history, it’s worth your time to ask. So, if you’re ever in Mexico City, make sure you check out one of the many artisan markets. I’m sure you’ll come out with a few gifts and stories to tell.

Why We’re Thankful for the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Grant

My travel day to Mexico was full of surprises. An unexpected flight change. A lack of WiFi in the Mexican airport. A house more colorfully decorated than I could have imagined. This exciting day was followed by an exciting school day where I was hearing a lot of Spanish and understanding only a little. So, after these two exciting-yet-draining days, we walked into school on the third day to an exciting-yet-comforting surprise: familiar faces!

Earlier this year in May, a group of Mexican college students and faculty traveled to Northwestern as part of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas grant. The grant provided us a weekend of academic conferences, focusing on obesity, a topic on which we have been studying in Mexico City.

So, the familiar faces seen on that third day in Mexico City were those of the Mexican students we met in May: Montse, Adolfo, Andres, Anneke, Hilda, and Fernanda.

Knowing these six has been the icing on the cake of our time here. They take us out to karaoke, teach us slang, show us the best late-night tacos, and give us a real connection to life as a college student in Mexico City.

late-night tacos in la Ciudad de México

late-night tacos in la Ciudad de México

More connections came out of that May weekend, too, academic ones. When we’re sitting in Public Health class, speaking with an important Mexican policy-maker about the health outcomes of a Mexican diet, my mind goes back to a May conference led by a Feinberg professor on culturally-appropriate diet changes for Chicago’s Latino populations.

I believe this to be the point of the 100,000 Strong in the Americas grants: tangible connections between students here, students there, ideas here, and ideas there. When I head back to Evanston in the fall, I’ll be bringing back specific Mexican anecdotes, policies, and the impression of Montse, Adolfo, Andres et al. for some sure to be enriching University Hall discussions.

Statistical Research on Malinalco Children

Malinalco Table 2During the second week of the Public Health in Mexico trip, I traveled with public health buddies to Malinalco, where we conducted nutrition and obesity research in an elementary school in this more rural part of Mexico. We recorded a lot of information regarding the children and their parents there, ranging from sociodemographic data (eg. age of children, gender of children, occupations of parents, etc.) to measuring their height and weight. For me, the research opportunity was valuable not only because of the hands-on experience with data collection, but also because I was able to extensively practice my Spanish while communicating with people who grew up with an entirely different language and culture from myself.

For the rest of my friends, the Malinalco experience ended there. For me, it was just beginning. With my mentor from Universidad Panamericana, I have organized the data we have collected from Malinalco and calculated the body mass index (BMI) of each of the children, along with whether or not the child in question was normal, overweight, and obese. The results were….quite surprising to say the least. About 32% of the children were either overweight or obese, which (while this is a definite health problem) matched established records. However, some of the children were EXTREMELY obese. To put this in perspective, children are considered obese when their BMI Z-score is greater than 2. So when you see Z-Scores like 3.7 and 4.6, that’s definitely an issue.

There are two major goals for my research. The first is to use the children’s answers to an obesity questionnaire (which asks multiple questions that determine whether children perceive obesity to be positive, negative, or neutral for health) and try and correlate that to BMI. The second is to correlate the sociodemographic factors I mentioned earlier to BMI as well. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find statistically significant results yet using chi-square tests, but I still have hope in the upcoming weeks!

Researching while Abroad

One of the main reasons why I chose to study abroad in Mexico City was because of the research component built into the program. In the first half of the program we conducted a field study on obesity and nutrition among a population of primary school children and their parents in a rural part of Mexico. This experience was incredibly informative because it allowed me to interact with Mexicans outside of the city and witness how health outcomes vary among the rural and urban populations. Considering that Mexico has the highest childhood obesity rate in the world, I was very surprised to see that a majority of the children were skinny and generally healthy. In fact, the parents and schoolteachers were the ones who tended to be overweight or obese, which may indicate that unhealthy habits become increasingly problematic with age. Overall our study in Malinalco was very unique because it focused on early detection and prevention of diet-related diseases in a rural part of Mexico, something that is very neglected in the country.

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By far the best part of my travels in Mexico has been working with my mentor Dr. Marcela Tamayo, a public health official specializing in environmental health. Dr. Tamayo works at the research facility Centro Medico ABC where she helps organize two birth cohort studies known as ELEMENT and PROGRESS. Both cohorts have followed pregnant mothers and their children for many years, investigating exposure to chemicals and metals such as lead, mercury, BPA and their enduring physiological effects. These studies have been extremely important in further understanding the impacts of prenatal exposure to toxic substances. In fact, one study found that taking calcium supplements during pregnancy is highly effective in reducing lead absorption in bones and can diminish fetal exposure.

The investigators at the research center have been extremely welcoming and have tried to teach us as much as possible about their study and research methods in the short time that we are with them. I have helped develop informational materials in Spanish that describe the investigation and will eventually be given to participants with the hope of increasing their knowledge of the research and boosting their retention in the study. Creating these materials has not only expanded my knowledge of the cohorts but has also improved my Spanish skills by learning how to effectively communicate with native Mexicans through writing. Working with public health officials who have been in the field for many years has been incredibly enlightening and has even helped me direct my future career path. Witnessing field work hands-on has reaffirmed my decision to major in biology and environmental science and ultimately pursue a career in environmental health.

La clinica en Malinalco

18815123694_53ba6cc081_oTwo weekends ago, our program had the opportunity to work with Universidad Panamericana in conducting research on childhood obesity in a rural town called Malinalco.  With the direction of two UP faculty investigators, three medical school students, two nursing students, and one psychology student, we wanted to help find any physical, social, cultural, and environmental factors that may contribute to obesity among the children of this town who were between the ages of 7 and 12.  We collected all sorts of information–in areas that include anthropometric measurements, general physical abilities and fitness, nutrition and diet, weekly physical activity, perceptions of beauty and obesity, prenatal care, and socio-economic status–through a series of surveys and tests at seven different stations.

In a span of three days, we ran this clinic in La Escuela de Miguel Hidalgo (the town’s elementary school) and talked to more than 250 participating families. After data are analyzed these next few weeks, the families will receive health reports and suggestions based on our assessments. Our participation in this clinic serves as a part of a long-term study, with the primary faculty investigators working with the families of Malinalco for several months.

As a young foreigner with somewhat limited skills in Spanish, I was definitely nervous about my seeming lack of rapport with the families in Malinalco. However, I was blown away by the respect and kindness that they showed to me and the entire team. Taking time off work and busy schedules, parents showed us incredible amounts of patience as we talked to them and their children about their health. They took our sometimes silly survey questions seriously, and they tried to answer them thoughtfully and accurately. Dr. Teresa Murguía, one of the primary investigators, told me that there weren’t many accessible or affordable means of healthcare for children in the area, and that families would take any opportunity to learn about their children’s health when they can.

I was also moved by the friendliness, curiosity, and intelligence of the kids we met that weekend. Groups of eight and nine-year-olds came up to the table that Danielle and I were at, and they wanted to learn about us. We asked them questions about their siblings, classes, hobbies, favorite animals, and what they wanted to be when they grow up. They even sang “Libre Soy” to us when we asked them about the movie Frozen. In turn, they asked us to teach them words in English; they pointed to various objects around us, and we would help them pronounce the names of those items. The kids seemed so happy, and it was so fun getting to know them.

Enjoying what we can

With full days filled with lectures, workshops, research, and educational trips, the past four weeks have been both really interesting and incredibly busy!  A few nights ago, I shared a conversation with my host mother Amalia about how fun and busy our program has been thus far.  At the end of this conversation, Amalia gave me a hug and said, “disfruta lo que pueda cuando lo tenga,” which means “enjoy what you can when you have it”.


I was reminded of a conversation between our group and Gerardo, UP’s dean of international affairs.  It was the first week of our program, and I had mentioned to him how warm and hospitable Amalia has been to us so far.  Having known her for several years, Gerardo at first added to our kind words by agreeing that her food was delicious. Then, he went on to say that Amalia embodied “the spirit of the university”. This statement struck me. He explained how Universidad Panamericana – a private Catholic university – strives to embody values such as faith, family, respect, and love.  No matter what faith people may have or what subject people may study or what people may do for a living, according to Gerardo, UP believes that anyone can successfully contribute to society and even serve God through honest hard work and continual learning. Gerardo said that Amalia loves her home stay students, and that she tries her best to foster an environment that embodies these values for them.


Whether it is at home, in school, at the hospital, or during our field trips around the city, I am learning a lot and am continually reminded of how grateful I am to be in this program.  These past four weeks in Mexico City have flown by, and I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it.

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The Nuances in “Normal”

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One word. Malinalco. We had the unique experience of going to Malinalco, a small but breathtaking rural town close to Mexico City, to conduct anthropometric and psychosociocultural research regarding nutrition and obesity on the population of children there. In awe of being surrounded by towering green mountains and the wonder of nature, it was hard to imagine that this was the everyday “normal” for the people of Malinalco. Coming to Malinalco, I had no idea what to expect. Even though we had workshops to prepare us, I knew that actually being out there in the field was going to be something completely different. I braced myself for the nuances to come.

As part of the anthropometric team, I was very excited and nervous to be working with the participants up close. I was quite flustered at first, but slowly fell into the groove of taking heights, and measuring the waist and hip sizes of the children and their parents. The most bittersweet part of the job for me was language difference. As I was unable to communicate fluently with the participants, there were so many questions and interactions that I was unable to ask and experience. On the other hand, I slowly learned many valuable key words in Spanish related to health, measurements, and dealing with patients in general. This was through a process of observation and collaboration with my fellow researchers, and teamwork in this case was very important in ensuring a smooth process. But I really enjoyed getting to interact with the participants. There are some emotions and sentiments that can be conveyed even without language, and it was wonderful to be able to have even the smallest moments of joy and recognition with the kids and their mothers, who were also extremely affable.At the end of the day we are all humans, and feelings are universal!

Another challenging aspect for me was measuring the mothers. They were often surprised that they had to be measured too, and when it came to hip and waist measurements, I sensed shyness and embarrassment from them. Most of the mothers were observably overweight or obese, and having to confront their physical status probably contributed to their lack of full cooperation. I encountered some resistance and it was hard to get accurate measurements if they were reluctant or wearing clothing that changed their natural form. But a few smiles, some laughter, and showing support and understanding can go a long way.

I was surprised that most of the kids did not look overweight. Although many seemed to look “normal” and have “healthy” measurements, looks can often be deceiving. The numbers tell us a different story. As I analyzed some of the data, only about 25% of them were overweight, and almost none were obese. However, I noticed a trend, in that most of the kids who fell in the “normal” BMI category were dangerously close to entering the overweight category. We had previously learned that as kids get older, there is a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity. It is worrisome to think that these kids may be making the jump between normal and overweight soon, or even from overweight to obese. And it is more grim knowing that most of the mothers and even teachers are likely overweight or obese, especially as most of them are housewives. But what I truly appreciated out of this initiative was its function as a preventative and early diagnosis program. Often, especially in Mexico, people will only go the doctor when they are sick due to socioeconomic limitations, but not much is being done to prevent unhealthy outcomes or inform the population about their risk profiles, which would be much more effective in the long run. There needs to be a more holistic and multi-layered approach to combating obesity in a place like Malinalco. By understanding their “normal”, in comparison to my own, I found that I left with even more questions regarding societal factors, unhealthy habits, the complexity of public health, incentives, nutrition, prevention, and physical status. Malinalco has opened a lot of doors, but we still need to dig deeper to find out what’s behind them to give Mexico a healthier “normal”.
Malinalco

Malinalco: A change of scenery and mind

Malinalco
Malinalco: rural and small in size, yet extreme in its natural beauty and historic significance. A mere 2.5 hour drive from the crowded and hectic atmosphere of Mexico City, it was the perfect place for a weekend get-away—especially to get some clinical research experience in the field done. After a rough morning of departing Universidad Panamericana at 6 AM, we finally made it to Malinalco 3 hours later, and went straight to work. All weekend long, with some help from our new UP friends, we worked in the town’s elementary school, Miguel Hidalgo: El Padre de la Patria Escuela, and would ask young boys and girls of 5-10 years old about their diet, daily exercise activity and other daily habits in order to measure obesity in the community. The major premise of the survey and clinical exam, was to attain numeric data on how many students and parents were obese in the community.

One of Mexico’s main global health problems is obesity. Thus, this survey and clinical exam will be a good indicator of how healthy the families in Malinalco are, and will eventually help UP educate the families on how to live healthier lives. I am a strong believer that change comes by educating the youth. If one wants to reduce obesity, in Malinalco or in one’s own community, one should target the younger population as they are the future of our society— they are our future leaders. Thus, this trip to Malinalco and my classes thus far, have taught me that change does not happen over-night. In order to combat obesity and better global health and nutrition, international and community collaboration and intervention is necessary. Our efforts in Malinalco were simply the first step in this community based change.

Climbing the Pyramids

It’s been almost three weeks since I first came to Mexico, and so far my favorite trip has to be our trip to the pyramids at the ruined site of Teotihuacan. The three pyramids that we focused on over there are the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl (the smallest one of the three), the Pyramid of the Moon, and the Pyramid of the Sun. The Pyramid of the Sun was by far the largest one of the three, and our class actually climbed all the way to the top! It was a very difficult climbing experience, especially since the steps leading up the pyramids were really steep compared to modern standards. I have no clue how the Aztecs were able to climb up all those pyramids on a regular basis; if there hadn’t been an attached handrail for shoddy climbers like me, there is no way I could have ever made it to the top.

But once I got there, wow! The view was absolutely breathtaking! You could look around you in all directions and see Mexico stretch out to the horizon. It might have been a tough and scary climb to the top, but it was SO worth it to stand at one of the tallest ancient structures still standing in Mexico and see the world as the ancients would have seen it.

The one thing that really surprised me about the pyramids was that they were actually built by a civilization BEFORE the Aztecs came by. The Aztecs merely adopted the pyramids and the symbols that came with them into their own mythology, such as the jaguar and the serpent. So who really did make the pyramids in the first place? We may never know.

Mexico Pyramid