Student Spotlight: Investigating Postpartum Insurance Coverage for Immigrants

MPH student Lucy Zheng is working to improve healthcare access for immigrants and undocumented women and children through the Applied Practical Experience program.

Second-year MPH students at the Brown University School of Public Health are actively engaged in internships and projects through the Applied Practical Experience (APE) program. These opportunities lead them to diverse agencies and organizations in Rhode Island and across the country. Our Student Spotlight series this summer follows their stories.

Lucy Zheng’s summer APE project brought her to Brown’s Population Studies and Training Center, where she’s assisting Maria Steenland, assistant professor of health services, policy and practice and of population studies. Her role is no easy task; she’s charged with diving into the world of data collection, working closely with state health departments across the United States. Her mission? To gather evidence that contributes to a comprehensive policy analysis on the accessibility of public postpartum insurance coverage for immigrants and undocumented families.

As Lucy delves into her work, she’s shedding light on the challenges women and children face when it comes to accessing the health care they need. She hopes to uncover potential data gaps in the system, leading to solutions that could make a difference in the lives of immigrant families across the country.

For Lucy, this summer project is not just a job or internship—it’s a chance to be part of a team dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable populations. She feels she’s contributing to a greater cause, one with the potential to bring about positive transformations in healthcare policy.

“Professor Steenland’s work is highly meaningful for several reasons,” Lucy said. “Before her research, there was no comprehensive dataset that connected a mother’s immigrant status to her postpartum coverage. It’s well-documented that postpartum coverage significantly affects maternal health outcomes. By establishing this database, other researchers can utilize it to conduct their own studies.” 

In this way, Professor Steenland’s work can be influential in shaping the decisions of policymakers and politicians. “Her findings can contribute to more inclusive policy-making regarding public health insurance,” Lucy said. “This newfound awareness can lead to considerations that were previously overlooked.”

Lucy’s APE project is providing her with her first experience collecting data from state governments. “I find it interesting to see the different requirements each state has, even for the same project,” she said. “Some states are more cooperative and have easier request processes, while others may be more challenging. As I contact various state health departments, I need to be flexible and adaptable throughout the communication process. This experience is helping me understand the factors that influence the health care decision-making process in the U.S.”

“ For Lucy, this summer project is not just a job or internship—it’s a chance to be part of a team dedicated to improving the lives of vulnerable populations. ”

Before joining Professor Steenland’s research team, Lucy completed a shadowing experience at a family medicine clinic in Duluth, Georgia that serves the Chinese immigrant population. Professor Steenland’s project felt like a natural next step to Lucy. “I was inspired by their work in maternal health,” she said. “Maria’s project seemed like a perfect opportunity for me, and it’s incredibly meaningful to contribute to this study.”

As an undergrad, Lucy studied systems biology at Case Western Reserve University, a concentration that combines mathematics, biology and computer science.  After completing her MPH at Brown, she hopes to attend medical school and is particularly interested in promoting labor pain relief and conducting research on health pain management for the maternal population.

“My ultimate goal is to become a physician who incorporates public health into my medical practice,” she said. “I believe public health plays an important role in medicine as it allows for both personal and population-based interventions. It offers flexibility beyond treating individual symptoms, encompassing the social determinants of health and cultural competence. This is especially important when providing healthcare to immigrant populations, who have different backgrounds from the mainstream norms in the U.S.”