A Picture of (Public) Health
By Julia Halprin Jackson
Award-winning undergraduate researcher Justise Wattree, ’23 Humanities, believes public health research is critical to healing the world.
Justise Wattree originally planned to become an opera singer — but when the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted his sophomore year at San José State University, he discovered a passion for public health in a research seminar. His mentor, Humanities Lecturer Erik Johnson, encouraged him to present his findings at the 2022 CSU Student Research Competition.
Wattree’s project, “The Two-Front War: Self-Help and Black Health Activism During the Spanish Flu, HIV/AIDS, and COVID-19,” explored how the Black community worked to fight health disparities during the global pandemic and won him first prize in the undergraduate category of humanities, arts and letters.
“My aha! moment came with that initial research project,” Wattree remembers. “I think I can change the world by doing research that can improve people’s health outcomes. That’s very significant and profound, and I want to be a part of that.”
Wattree (standing) helped organize the first Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (RSCA) Student Forum in fall 2022. Presenters included, from left to right: Jessica Uche Umeh, '23 Public Health; Ariana Esfahani, '23 Psychology, and Vanessa Reeves, '22 Public Health. Photo by Alyssa Karlin, '23 BFA Photography.
Public speaking and poetry are an important outlet for Wattree, who shared original work at an open mic in fall 2021. Photo: Robert C. Bain
Wattree’s work gained momentum as he applied for a summer internship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC connected him to the Lewis Scholars' Imhotep Project at Morehouse College, where he received training in public health research and worked with US Helping US, a nonprofit that supports HIV/STI prevention and promotes sexual health in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area.
“What really caught my eye was the [impact of the] HIV epidemic on the LGBTQ+ community, specifically Black men as well as other parts of the Black community,” he shares. “My research taught me that HIV shows us how connected health is with certain structural factors, and in order to improve the health of the Black community, it’s not enough to address preventive behaviors. It goes deeper than that.”
Back in San José, Wattree took his work one step further, collaborating with SJSU’s Division of Research and Innovation to organize the first-ever Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity (RSCA) Student Forum, where he presented alongside fellow undergraduates and alumni.
“SJSU stands out as a comprehensive university due to our robust Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity enterprise,” says Richard Mocarski, associate vice president for research. “Our students, including fantastic undergraduates like Justise, have the opportunity to partner with faculty outside of the classroom to be members of this innovative culture, elevating both their SJSU experience and the RSCA enterprise.”
“Our students, including fantastic undergraduates like Justise, have the opportunity to partner with faculty outside of the classroom to be members of this innovative culture, elevating both their SJSU experience and the RSCA enterprise.”
— Richard Mocarski
In fall 2022, Wattree launched his third project with SJSU’s McNair Scholars program, which supports first-generation and underrepresented students in research. With the support of his mentor, Assistant Professor of African American Studies Michael R. Fisher, Wattree is conducting a case study of Black churches in Oakland, California, examining how social justice and activism supports HIV programming within Black churches. Following his graduation from SJSU, Wattree will be starting a master's in public health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University this fall.
“We need to engage our communities to address systemic and structural racism,” Wattree says. “One of the ways we can counter that and still do good research is by not censoring the narratives of the communities we’re trying to impact. That’s why it is very important that we engage communities in the research and in implementing evidence-based solutions. Research is a way to give back and benefit people, while also benefiting the world.”
Want to learn more?
Learn more about the Division of Research and Innovation at SJSU.
Top photo: Robert C. Bain.
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