Using Research To Make A Difference

When people daydream about Los Angeles, they think of beaches and Hollywood glamour.  Though Los Angeles is a city filled with wonder and awe, it is not free from flaws. There are over 58,000 homeless people who call Los Angeles “home,” a community that far outnumbers the rich and famous. Although homelessness is not a new societal issue, it is a rising one. Efforts like the Hunger and Homeless Awareness week, recognized in the second week of November, try to bring attention to the problems of hunger and homelessness within the country.   This summer, the Graduate School’s DIA JumpStart program gave a student the opportunity to research ways to improve and assist the homeless community in Los Angeles.

Shayna La Scala

Shayna La Scala is a senior at California State University Fullerton and a Ronald E. McNair Scholar.  She majoring in human services with an emphasis on mental health, as well as minoring in sociology and health sciences. Through JumpStart, she had the opportunity to research water, sanitation and hygiene accessibility for the homeless community in Los Angeles.

“I applied to eight programs and DIA JumpStart was one of the programs,” La Scala said.  “I was looking at everything in California all the way to Boston.”

The DIA JumpStart program is a summer research experience open to students from local undergraduate serving institutions who are completing their sophomore and junior year. As part of USC’s Graduate Initiative for Diversity, Inclusion and Access (DIA), the DIA JumpStart program provides academic, financial and professional support and opportunities for students who want to pursue a doctorate degree after their undergraduate studies.  Partnering with other USC schools and programs, DIA JumpStart provides summer research opportunities that range from lab-based research to mentored participation in faculty projects. After the 10-week experience, students have the opportunity to present their research.

Dr. Robert Vos is one of the many faculty members who work with the DIA JumpStart program.  He is the Director of Graduate Studies with the USC Spatial Sciences Institute directing the Population, Health and Place doctoral program. Dr. Vos believes that it is vital to give undergraduate students an opportunity to participate in a summer research practicum and connect with current PhD students.

“DIA JumpStart is a wonderful thing that USC does. It is an unusual thing [for] schools to have the resources to have their own program,” said Dr.Vos. “It is an impressive evidence of the Provost’s commitment to diversity.”

During the DIA JumpStart program, La Scala was hosted by Dr. Vos as she conducted research in the Spatial Sciences Institute’s Population, Health and Place graduate program. During the research seminar, La Scala sat through project presentations from second and third year PhD candidates and got to select the project she wanted to work on.

Skid Row, Downtown Los Angeles

“The [project] that I ended up choosing investigated water and restroom accessibility for homeless people in downtown LA,” La Scala said. “The passion of the PhD candidate that presented to us, Johanna, was shining through.  I was drawn to her passion.”

La Scala’s research team highlighted the marginalized position that homeless people experience in their everyday life; including the lack of access to safe and clean sanitation services. Their study specifically examined the scarcity and accessibility of those resources within Los Angeles.  During the program, La Scala participated in literature reviews and a research seminar. She then had the opportunity to “ground truth” her data by interviewing over 100 people living on Skid Row and employees at local business to gauge the response to homelessness in Los Angeles.

“After doing the reading, I went into it opened minded not knowing what to expect,” La Scala said. “I visited Skid Row previously on other volunteer projects to help feed the homeless or provide blankets, but it had been years ago. When I got [ to Skid Row] I felt surprised because nothing had changed.”

As she completed her field work, La Scala had discovered new harsh realities about homelessness.  Water is a basic human right, and yet many people do not have access to it. Some businesses allow homeless people to use their facilities, but many do not.  This forces homeless people to use public fountains and park restrooms, which is also a safety and public health concern especially after dark.

La Scala and team conducting interviews on Skid Row.

“Many counties in Southern California have public health initiatives that are pushing people to count for 60 seconds while washing your hands, but what about the large population of people who don’t have any access to water?” La Scala said.

Though La Scala’s research was heartbreaking at times, she loved the exposure and experiences that the DIA JumpStart program provided. Having the opportunity to work with USC faculty, network with PhD students and access to research labs will provide an advance experience for students who want to pursue graduate school.

“DIA JumStart helped broaden my ideas in my humanitarian efforts. There is so much more to the story than what I am studying,” La Scala said. “And Dr. Vos made me feel like I was a part of the team.”



**Applications for research positions through DIA JumpStart are now available. Please click here.