“She helped me a lot by encouraging me and believing I could do it,” Sandra Estrada ’20 said of her mentor, Gina Hames, associate professor of history. Estrada says making that connection with a faculty member opens doors to create other connections.
Sandra Estrada ’20 didn’t intend to sign up for “Global Human Rights” as her required first-year experience course. She decided to stick with it anyway.
That happy accident resulted in a vocational about-face, accelerated academic growth and a valuable relationship with a beloved professor.
“She’s helping me figure out what I want out of my education,” Estrada said of Gina Hames, associate professor of history. “It makes college less intimidating.”
The latter is an understatement, if Estrada’s first year at Pacific Lutheran University is any indication. She joined the ranks of student researchers — many who were older classmates well into their college careers — presenting at PLU’s inaugural Undergraduate Research Symposium in April.
Estrada’s project on child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa rapidly evolved. What started as her first major college assignment turned into a professional presentation on public health issues.
“As a first-year, I think it’s important to dive in and take a challenge,” she said. “So you can meet more people and make connections.”
Hames said the assignment was aimed at preparing first-year students for the rigorous academic journey ahead of them.
“I have them do a full-blown research project,” she said of her writing 101 students. “The 10-page paper prepares them for the next several years of college-level work.”
Students in her class read each other’s work and offer feedback throughout the semester. They also learn about library literacy and research methods from Amy Stewart-Mailhiot, an associate professor and teaching librarian at PLU, as well as attend mandatory meetings with Hames to make sure their projects are on track. “They learn to be critical readers,” Hames said. “It’s a lot for them to do.”
Estrada’s work ethic immediately shined through, Hames said. She didn’t just do the work, she did it with a positive attitude and a perpetual smile on her face.
“She is a super hard worker,” Hames said. “I’m super impressed with her.”
And it’s easy to see why.
Estrada researched and analyzed information about the treatment and prevention of tuberculosis and HIV in children. Co-infection is a primary contributor of child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa. She outlined best practices for, and challenges of, diagnosing children facing the life-threatening, preventable conditions. Additionally, she addressed access to care sites and the resources needed to improve the public health outlook of children 5 years old and younger.
“We can see that money specifically directed to helping the sites is tied to overall progress,” Estrada wrote in her analysis. “Reducing the mortality rate will only be achieved if certain issues are addressed as soon as possible. Those issues include correct diagnosis, treatments that are timed and ordered correctly, and more funds being distributed to communities that are lacking.”
Estrada pulled from her personal interests when deciding on this topic.
“I’ve always been passionate about kids,” she said. “Sometimes, we’re blind to problems that go on outside the U.S. Children are dying from preventable diseases.”
The research has helped Estrada reinvent her vocational path, too. The 253 PLU Bound Scholar and commuter student initially came to the university to study engineering. After quickly realizing it wasn’t a good fit, she struggled to find a landing spot. She quickly learned that her next choice, chemistry, wasn’t in the cards either.
Then, with the help of Hames’ class, she discovered the depth and breadth of global studies. Public health quickly rose to the top of her interests within the field. She plans to continue exploring that topic on a global scale through study away. She’s considering enrolling in the semester Gateway program in Oaxaca, Mexico.
“This definitely catapulted my interest into doing something international,” Estrada said.
Hames, who encouraged Estrada to submit her paper for consideration in the springtime academic conference, says the close collaborative work between students and faculty members elevates the value of a PLU degree.
“They aren’t doing it for a grade. It’s for themselves,” she said of students who work on research as undergraduates. “They can do more with their degree if they’ve had this focused, out-of-class research with a faculty member.”
Hames added that research outside the classroom helps with retention and overall classroom performance. “Students become invested in their education,” she said. “They gain a ton of confidence.”
'You Are What You Drink'
The titles on the tall stack of books on Gina Hames’ desk are a blur, but the topics may make some salivate: whiskey, rum, cocktails. The list goes on, but they all have one thing in common — alcohol.
“If you were to ask someone to describe a beer drinker and a wine drinker, the descriptions would likely be very different,” Hames said. “You would have different assumptions about them based on what they drink.”
Hames, associate professor of history, is conducting research on alcohol and the creation of identity in a cultural context.
She initially completed a dissertation on women in Bolivia who own neighborhood taverns. That was followed by a textbook on the world history of alcohol. A popular press in London reached out to her and urged her to write a popular version. So, she is spending her sabbatical this year working on the book tentatively titled “You Are What You Drink.” It’s due out by early 2019.
“I find it fascinating,” she said of the research.
As for Hames’ drink of choice? It depends on the season. In the summer, she’ll take white wine or gin and tonic. Winter calls for red wine or warm Grand Marnier — an orange-flavored liqueur.
Estrada was pleasantly surprised when her paper was selected for the symposium. She said prepping for the presentation would have been intimidating without Hames’ steadfast guidance.
“We’re going to practice until it’s perfect,” Hames recalled saying, during multiple meetings before the conference.
Despite her unrelenting coaching, Estrada never uttered a complaint. “She was super excited to do it,” Hames said.
Hames says the mentorship she provides to Estrada, as well as other students, is the foundation of a lifelong bond. She looks forward to watching the continued growth from the passenger seat.
“She’s fearless,” Hames said. “She’s really coming into her own.”
That accelerated growth is what makes the job worth it, Hames added.
“It’s the icing,” she said, smiling. “This is why I do this.”