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NMSU anthropology researchers to study gendered impacts of COVID-19

New Mexico State University senior Hailey Taylor expected to spend this summer in the far-flung Republic of Vanuatu, a tiny country in the South Pacific. Before the coronavirus outbreak, she had planned to continue studying the gendered impacts of marriage on chronic disease with her mentor in NMSU’s Discovery Scholars Program, anthropology Assistant Professor Kathryn Olszowy.


Woman standing in front of a poster display
New Mexico State University senior Hailey Taylor presented her data on differences in chronic disease risk between men and women in the Republic of Vanuatu at the Southwestern Association of Biological Anthropology meeting in Tempe, Arizona, in November 2019. Through the Discovery Scholars Program, Taylor is revising her research plan to focus on differences in perception and behavior between female and male college students as they react to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Photo)
Head and shoulders of a woman
New Mexico State University Assistant Professor Kathryn Olszowy, a biomedical anthropologist, is a mentor for undergraduate researcher Hailey Taylor on a Discovery Scholars Project to study the differences in perception and behavior between female and male college students as they react to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy Photo)

Taylor, who will graduate from NMSU in December with a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and a minor in public health, instead will be studying the differences in perception and behavior between female and male college students as they react to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This study is important in acknowledging the unique challenges and risks facing university students in this pandemic,” Taylor said. “We hope in making available data from this study, universities can better identify and address the needs of their diverse student populations.”

“Women and men face unique risks during this outbreak. While men appear to be more susceptible to the virus (and the reasons for this are unclear), women appear to be more susceptible to negative consequences of the outbreak response,” Olszowy said. “Disentangling the reasons for these differences is really important for refining our response to COVID-19.”

Taylor is hopeful that her research can make contributions in understanding not only how the COVID-19 outbreak itself impacts individuals but also how people are dealing with the social, economic and health consequences of the government’s response.

“The outbreak has exposed and exacerbated wide-scale inequities in our society, and anthropologists can help us understand those inequities and their consequences at a local level,” Olszowy said. “The information we gather can be used to refine disaster preparedness plans for limiting individual and family exposure during future outbreaks, and can help to better target response resources in the future. It should also be locally helpful to the university as this is an evolving situation, and we likely will be dealing with COVID-19 and fallout from the response for several months or even years.”

Olszowy, a biomedical anthropologist, enlisted fellow NMSU professor Mary Alice Scott, a cultural medical anthropologist, to become a co-mentor for Taylor and help to develop the project.

“I am really thrilled that Dr. Olszowy has joined our faculty,” Scott said. “Our complementary expertise in medical anthropology opens doors for us to do some really innovative and impactful research in the field, and I hope Hailey’s project is just the first example of the kind of collaborative work we can do together with our students.”

Taylor said she is grateful to both NMSU professors for helping her to create this new direction for her research. The team’s first consideration in designing the study was safety for participants and researchers.

“Ideally, we would have liked to have conducted in-person focus groups to better understand the motivation behind engaging in certain behaviors or behavioral changes, but if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that health comes first,” Taylor said. “By making it an online survey, we will be able to collect data in a way that is both safe and easily accessible for students to participate.”

Taylor developed a questionnaire through looking at surveys deployed during previous pandemics such as H1N1, SARS and influenzas. She hopes to sample 200 NMSU students through her online survey. The objective of the project is to understand gendered differences in risk behaviors and perceptions during the COVID-19 outbreak as well as gendered effects on mental distress.

“Because the survey will be deployed remotely, we may miss some opportunities for rich description of experiences and context,” Olszowy said. “Hailey will try to deal with some of that by giving the opportunity for open-ended questions in the survey. We are also concerned about missing students who lack reliable access to the internet - they have equally important perspectives to contribute.”

Director of the Discovery Scholars Program Nancy McMillan, also a geology professor and department head, is impressed by the resourcefulness of the team. “This is an amazing example of how NMSU faculty and students are nimbly using their unique skills and interests to understand the reaction to the pandemic,” McMillan said.

“I have been continually impressed by Hailey's curiosity, her work ethic and her ability to work across sub-disciplinary boundaries in anthropology,” Olszowy said. “Mentoring has always been the most enjoyable part of my job, and I think it's wonderful that NMSU’s DSP has this opportunity for students.”

Taylor grew up a military family, moving around the country and overseas, but landed in the El Paso/Las Cruces area in 2008. When it was time to pick a college, she chose NMSU for its agriculture programs with plans to attend veterinary school. But along the way she took a course in medical anthropology and found her passion.

“Anthropology filled in the gaps that a career as a doctor could not – it gave me the ability to conduct research that would have a far-reaching impact on both cultural and individual levels,” Taylor said. “Three weeks later I requested to meet with my professor to ask about anthropology, and a career in the field; and later that very day I submitted a request to change my major to anthropology, with a minor in public health. Though medical anthropology was my first love, I now plan to specialize in biomedical anthropology and continue my academic career in pursuit of a Ph.D. in biological anthropology.”