Isabella Chan earns $15,000 PEO Scholar Award

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USF College of Public Health doctoral candidate Isabella Chan has been selected as a recipient of the PEO’s Scholar Award, which she says will allow her to focus more completely on her dissertation work in Peru.

Chan was 100 out 738 nominees selected to receive the $15,000 award for the 2017-2018 academic year.

“The PEO Scholar Award is invaluable in allowing me to wholly focus on my dissertation and achieving my professional goals, and by proxy, the goals of the women with whom I work,” Chan said, who is working toward her PhD from the Department of Global Health.

Chan with some of her close friends in the town of Carhuaz, the town in Peru where she’s currently residing. Here they are gathered together to honor the town’s patron saint—the Virgen Mercedes— during the annual fiesta of Mama Meche. (Photo courtesy of Isabella Chan)

The PEO (Philanthropic Educational Organization) Scholar Award program provides educational awards to women who are pursuing a doctoral level degree at an accredited university, according to their website. The PEO membership includes a quarter of a million members in chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada, and the group has provided more than $21 million in Scholar Awards to date.

“I was thrilled to receive the news!” she said. “I am so honored to be selected as a PEO Scholar. I actually received the email after about a week with no phone or internet, which were down because of recent landslides.  I was scrolling through a mountain of emails I had to reply to and feeling overwhelmed, and the subject line caught my eye—I was so excited!”

Chan has been in Peru for the past 11 months working on her dissertation research, funded by the Inter-American Foundation’s Grassroots Development Fellowship.

She was one of 16 recipients of the fellowship and has been conducting field work in the Carhuaz province of Peru, focusing on rural and indigenous women’s decision-making around intimate partner violence (IPV) in non-western settings.

“As you can imagine, the research can be tough at times, emotionally challenging, but I’m very optimistic about the practical outcomes here in Carhuaz and the contributions to IPV research,” she said. “I’ve worked in the area consistently since 2012, so it’s like coming home.”

Chan (second from left) was invited to participate in the local parade and celebration commemorating International Women’s Day in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Isabella Chan)

Chan said her public health passion is addressing gender inequity and discrimination and its impacts on health.

“Such a passion involves more than health, but also a focus on the sociocultural and political-economic factors that shape risks for and experiences of health and illness,” she said.

Chan earned both her MA in applied anthropology and her MPH in global health practice from USF.

She said she was drawn to work in Peru during a 2008 anthropological field school experience in Peru with the Center for Social Well Being as part of an anthropology course.

“I discovered the dynamic nature of health and identity in a rural Andean province facing increased globalization,” she said.

Chan (left) makes fresh bread for a Dia de los Muertos celebration with a friend. (Photo courtesy of Isabella Chan)

Chan decided to return in 2012 for her master’s research, examining women’s decision-making in the context of changing pregnancy and childbirth practices.

“Long-term, ethnographic fieldwork allowed me to deeply engage with the local community and understand their concerns, including IPV, which motivated me to pursue a PhD in public health, a field that effectively integrates research and practice, to continue supporting their efforts,” Chan said. “I am a big proponent of community-based, participatory research, and the opportunity to pursue a doctoral dissertation topic originating within the communities I work with is an amazing opportunity to contribute to both scientific knowledge and actively support female empowerment and the advancement of gender equality through research and practice.”

Chan said her ultimate goal is to alleviate gender and ethnic inequality among indigenous women in Peru using her skills and training to facilitate the change women seek for themselves and their children.

“Many women I work with are illiterate, yet, their knowledge and experiences have the potential to improve their community,” she said.

In the future, she said she plans to pursue U.S. academic employment while also continuing to work with the Center for Social Well Being in Carhuaz.

“This will allow me to facilitate change through applied research and engaged teaching,” Chan said. “As such, I can continue working towards achieving social justice while mentoring young researchers to do the same.”

Read more on Chan’s research in Peru.

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health