Elena Daniel

By Laura Paisley
Public Health

Elena Daniel, a premed student, is inspired by the connections between public health and kinesiology. This is reflected by her urban internships and ongoing faculty-mentored research projects at Oxy.

As soon as Elena Daniel set foot on Oxy’s campus as a high school senior, she was struck by the small school atmosphere.

“There were so many opportunities to work with professors and conduct research—Oxy immediately felt like the perfect fit.”

Elena came to college from Annville, Penn., interested in premed, so a biology major was a natural first choice. But the human focus of kinesiology won her over.

“It seems like a very specific major, i.e. the study of human movement, but kinesiology is actually very interdisciplinary. My particular interests are developmental motor behaviors, specifically in early childhood, as well as the public health implications of kinesiology.”

She’s been able to work in both these areas intimately as part of her ongoing research on greening schoolyards. Since sophomore year she has worked with her adviser, Associate Professor Marcella Raney ’01, on the positive effects of replacing playground asphalt with natural elements such as grass and trees. Their findings show that this increases physical activity and creative play among students while reducing physical and verbal conflict.

Elena poses at the Child Development Center on the Occidental campus.

Elena is continuing the work this summer through the Undergraduate Research Center’s Summer Research Program, reviewing data from several local elementary schools in order to evaluate the relative impact of schoolyard design features and green infrastructure on physical activity and social behaviors.

“We're hoping that the results of the study support the provision for equitable access to green space for all students.”

Raney is an extremely supportive and dedicated mentor, Elena says.

“She really challenged me to reach my full academic potential—potential that I didn’t even recognize. She was there for me every step of the way in constructing my proposal, and was always available if I had questions.”

Elena was recently named a 2019-20 Science Scholar, which afforded her generous financial support to carry out research from the spring of her junior year through graduation. Last summer she successfully applied for a Public Health Internship, funded through the Urban & Environmental Policy department. She focused on Los Angeles County, working with Every Woman Counts on female reproductive health and researching Medicaid dental benefit access.

Every Woman Counts, a program of the California Department of Health Care Services, offers free breast and cervical cancer screenings to uninsured and undocumented women. Elena did community outreach to identify underserved groups and offer related educational workshops. Her dental health research highlighted the lack of Denti-Cal clinics relative to the size of the beneficiary population.

Elena presents at the 2019 Summer Research Conference on July 31.

Being a student in L.A. has exposed Elena to many different people and populations, and she was excited to find an organization that catered specifically to the health needs of African refugees.

“My family comes from Eritrea, which has actually been a big inspiration for me to pursue public health,” she says. “A lot of my family still live there and struggle for access to basic healthcare.”

I was always interested in medicine, but since pursuing public health-oriented research I don't only want to look at health issues on an individual basis, but see how it affects the community as a whole.

Her research experiences have shown Elena the extent to which science research can take place beyond the traditional lab setting.

“There is so much value in community-based research. With the data we’re collecting, we're validating the concerns of the community. That has inspired and motivated me to pursue a master's in public health in addition to a medical degree.

“I was always interested in medicine, but since pursuing public health-oriented research I don't only want to look at health issues on an individual basis, but see how it affects the community as a whole. I think it's a lot more sustainable that way.”