University of Tennessee at Chattanooga sophomore Gillian Morton wants to be a physician assistant.
She also wants to work in the public health arena and go into rural communities “Because I grew up in a very underserved urban neighborhood and I also have family in rural areas in Ohio and West Virginia. It’s really important to me to serve the community I came from—where most people could not afford groceries and were on SNAP, food stamps and WIC. That’s how I grew up.”
A recent research opportunity only reinforced those desires.
Morton, a Brock Scholar in the Honors College majoring in pre-health professional exercise and health science with minors in biology and chemistry, was one of five UTC undergraduates to attend this summer’s HBCU Wellness Project at Meharry Medical College in Nashville.
Abbreviated for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, the HBCU Wellness Project, which started in 2007, is an initiative created to make use of the human and social resources of Tennessee’s university students. The project trains student health ambassadors—college students coming from HBCU institutions and other universities associated with the project, like UTC—and exposes them to service learning, working with local health and social service agencies to serve as community change agents.
According to the HBCU website, minority and ethnic communities disproportionately suffer greatly from many preventable chronic illnesses. These deficits, referred to as health disparities or health inequalities, result in health inequities, the organization notes. Learning more about public health frameworks prepares students as future healthcare professionals.
“Participating in the HBCU Wellness Project is very affirming for me,” Morton said. “This is what I want to do 110% deep in my soul. It is a great opportunity and I’m really grateful for it.”
Morton, a 2022 graduate of Martin Luther King Academic Magnet school in Nashville, learned about the project from Honors College Dean Linda Frost.
“She sent out an email to the entire Honors College and I was like, ‘Here’s this HBCU Wellness Project at Meharry.’ I’m from Nashville. I know Meharry. I went to school down the street from Meharry for 12 years. I read about it on their website and knew I wanted it,” Morton said.
“What I love about the program,” Frost explained, “is how very intentional they are. I know this from working with them for several years and attending previous workshop sessions.
“The idea is that the student-health ambassadors come on board and are trained to research and work with different community organizations. They also carefully walk students through what it means to do viable scientific research and how to present it. You don’t have to be a pre-med student to do it, but you need to care about public health, particularly those underserved populations.”
In late July, Morton, sophomore Jack Henley, junior KeyAirra Sutton and seniors Breanna Evans and Jude Suliman attended the HBCU Wellness Project conference at Meharry. They were accompanied by UTC Vice Provost and Professor Shewanee Howard-Baptiste and Academic Affairs Project Coordinator Alexis Hurley.
“Having UTC students participate in this program is a real opportunity for us to be on the map and in the forefront of making sure that we’re training future doctors and physician assistants and nurses and healthcare providers who will then go on to ensure that we address health disparities that impact underserved rural populations in Tennessee,” Howard-Baptiste said. “The HBCU Wellness Project was great exposure for them. They met the president of Meharry Medical College, professors in public health, doctors, dentists and physician assistants. They saw that there are a lot of opportunities for them out there.
“These five great students will now embark on research projects, individually and collectively, that impact our region, the state and the country.”
Over the next year, Morton’s research will focus on hypertension in greater Chattanooga and Southeast Tennessee. She said she will pay special attention to Sequatchie County “Because they have some of the worst hypertension rates in the state.”
“My research will be on hypertension and food equity and recording the correlation versus causation there and see if any of that is connected,” she said. “The emphasis of this program is for underserved and underrepresented communities, which includes places where people don’t normally perform research because it’s in the middle of nowhere; you might have to drive a long way to get there.”
Morton knows about this first-hand from a different direction: Along with being a student, she is a certified clinical medical assistant at Erlanger Hospital. “I see people who drive from middle-of-nowhere Alabama to Erlanger to get care because it’s the only hospital they have within two hours,” she said.
She lauded the opportunities afforded her by attending the conference and the exposure she received to different fields within medicine—along with the networking connections.
“It was so nice to be in an environment with like-minded individuals and people who are passionate about public health and medicine who also understand that health disparities are real … they exist, and a lot of people experience them daily,” she said. “A lot of people there were like me—the first person in their family to go to college on a traditional track, the first person in their family to pursue medicine, the first person in their family to be able to have these opportunities to pursue what they want to pursue.
“I’m really grateful for the opportunity to go to college and be able to do what I want to do—and that’s to be able to serve my community and help people who otherwise would not have access to medicine.”
UTC HBCU Wellness Project 2023 Student Attendees
- Breanna Evans, senior, exercise science and psychology (Smyrna, Tennessee)
- Jack Henley, sophomore, psychology, Brock Scholar (Nashville)
- Gillian Morton, sophomore, pre-health professional exercise and health science, Brock Scholar (Nashville)
- Jude Suliman, senior, biochemistry, Innovations in Honors (Fuheis, Jordan)
- KeyAirra Sutton, junior, pre-professional biology (Chattanooga)