FLINT, Michigan -- As a student who grew up on Flint’s northside, April LaGrone lived through the Flint water crisis, a public health disaster that received international attention and the community is still in the midst of recovering from.
Now, she’s pursuing a career in public health as an epidemiologist and was one of only 10 college students in the country selected for the prestigious Stanford Population Health Summer Research Program
this summer. It is part of Stanford’s AHEaD initiative, which is aimed at advancing health equity and diversity.
“I got the (acceptance) email in February and I literally jumped out of bed and I was screaming,” she said. “I was so excited. I couldn't believe it. My faith is everything to me, so I was just thanking God that I got this opportunity. It was super selective. I think they only selected 10 students out of the whole country. So being in that top 1 percent just meant a whole lot. And it really made everything that I've put into being a student so worth it.”
LaGrone already started the program, which is virtual this summer, and is working on research related to Emory University’s African American Epidemiology Study
(AACES) during the internship.
LaGrone is a first-generation college student. She’s currently a junior at Michigan State University and graduated from Westwood Academy. Her interest in public health started early in her life.
“My passion for public health started when I was six years old,” she said. “I have Type 1 Diabetes. And so my experiences navigating the healthcare system as a Black woman and the things that followed (the diagnosis) really was something that I was like, wow, there is a lot of room for improvement here. After witnessing so many inequities, I was like, I really want to be here kind of pushing that change. And I feel like research is really the thing at the foundation.”
Since that time, LaGrone’s passion for public health intensified during the water crisis and witnessing firsthand the impact it had on her community in Flint.
“Living through that catapulted my interest as well,” LaGrone said. “Seeing the effects of how environmental racism, medical racism, affects Black and Brown communities, I really wanted to be a part of pushing that change forward.”
In addition to the health consequences of the water crisis, the failures of government and institutions that are supposed to protect communities eroded trust in Flint. Recovering that trust may take generations, and it will be reliant on work done by on-the-ground public health officials.
“The trust is so broken,” she said.
That broken trust that resulted from the water crisis also impacted Flint during the COVID-19 pandemic -- if people didn’t trust institutions that are encouraging social distancing or masks or vaccinations, that led to increased levels of infection and death. LaGrone used her public health expertise to encourage people around her to mask up and get vaccinated.
“I just kind of really try to do my part advocating for vaccinations because we've already suffered through so much,” LaGrone said. “I mean, Flint is definitely resilient. Don't get me wrong, but I don't want to see more suffering. Black people suffer at a disproportionate rate of COVID-19 anyway, and we've already been through the water crisis and I've seen my family go through so much. I really just try to speak to the importance of getting vaccinated, social distancing, wear your mask, and just really encouraging people around me to do their credible research and do their part.”
LaGrone will continue her education in the fall, with an end goal of going on to graduate school and medical school and pursuing a career in epidemiology.
“I'm definitely still pursuing a career in epidemiology, particularly social epidemiology,” she said. “I'm really interested in examining health disparities and the different aspects of people's lived experiences and the kind of environment that lives around them and how it affects their health, because it's wider than just individual factors. We've seen that play out so many times. Your environment around you can definitely have huge impacts on your health.”