Graduate Student Spotlight: Elizabeth Ankrah Explores Tech for ‘Care Journeys’

March 9, 2021

When Elizabeth Ankrah was younger, she considered following in her father’s footsteps and becoming a nurse, or maybe even a doctor. Instead, she took a different route to healthcare, earning her bachelor’s degree in bioengineering from George Mason University, with a concentration in healthcare informatics. Now, as a second-year Ph.D. student in UCI’s Department of Informatics and a member of the Social & Technological Action Research (STAR) group, she is exploring socio-technical interventions for people in need of chronic care.

“Elizabeth’s research is poised to make a major impact as we work to reduce health disparities in childhood cancer survivors through technology,” says Ankrah’s adviser, Gillian Hayes, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate Division. “Elizabeth shows maturity in her research management skills, coordinating with a diverse set of researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, USC and across UCI, as well as in her research knowledge, finding both innovative and impactful solutions to really thorny problems.”

As a first-generation Ghanaian-American, Ankrah is also sharing her experience — as well as her network of peers — through her TrailBlazer project, which aims to support Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) interested in pursuing higher education. She recently hosted a panel discussion with six students about their path to grad school and navigating the application process. Here, Ankrah talks about her own journey to UCI and her desire to help others.

How did you first become interested in health informatics?
I came to the U.S. from Ghana when I was 6 years old. My dad was working in nursing homes and went to school later on to get his nursing degree, so we always talked about the importance of health in our house. And there’s always that joke about how all parents want their children to become a doctor, no matter what, but I found I wasn’t really interested in medicine. In high school, there was a program to become a certified nursing assistant (CNA), where you’d go to the hospital every day or to a nursing home, and that’s when I realized that this is not for me!

But I was always really passionate about helping people and making sure they were not only physically healthy but also holistically well. Also, watching my parents and their interactions with doctors and the medical establishment here in the United States, I became really interested in ways to better support people’s communications with their providers. How do we help immigrants take care of themselves in this community, in this context?

So when did you realize that technology could play a role here?
Going back to that high school CNA program, I realized I didn’t want to become a doctor, but my teacher at the time knew I was strong in math and technology, so she suggested looking into bio engineering, and that’s what I studied. I enjoyed my time in bio engineering, but then I also realized that I wanted to interact more with people. I always knew I had a passion for technology; I just didn’t know how to combine that with my passion for working with people until I was doing a summer program as an undergrad and learned about HCI [human-computer interaction]. That’s when I figured out, “yes — there’s a thing where you can talk to people and create technology for them!”

What led you to UCI for your Ph.D.?
While doing an undergraduate summer research program at the University of Minnesota, I met a postdoc named Jasmine Jones who became a mentor to me. She was another Black woman in tech specializing in HCI, and I was telling her about my interest. She told me to look up certain professors who intersect in my area. So that drew my attention to people like Gillian Hayes at UCI as I tried to find the best fit — someplace where I could work with people, patients and providers.

Jasmine also told me to attend the CMD-IT/ACM Richard Tapia Celebration of Diversity in Computing conference, which is where I met Sharnnia Artis, who recruits students through the GO-UCI [Graduate Opportunities at UCI] program. It’s a pre-application visitation program that lets people come to UCI to learn about different opportunities and to interact with professors. I ended up doing the program and when I came and met the faculty, I was like, “I want to come here! I love it!”

And who are some of the people who have inspired you?
A lot of people have supported me along the way, and people who inspire me now are members of the STAR group. When I came here for GO-UCI, I met Lucretia Williams, another Black woman within our field attending the program. We found that we were both from the East Coast, and now we’re both in the same cohort working in the STAR group together, along with Jazette Johnson, another person who inspires me. And Jasmine, who is now a computer science professor at Berea College, is still my mentor.

Can you talk a bit about your research focus?
I’ve become really interested in chronic illnesses, but right now my research is focused on cancer survivors. I’m working with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, with their childhood cancer survivor clinic, and my interest is understanding the lifestyle and barriers and challenges that survivors face. I’m interested in understanding people’s care journeys, people’s lifestyle and how we can translate that into their care trajectories — meaning, how they take care of themselves and how we organize and create programs and technologies for their care based on their lifestyle.

What are your future goals?
I am still figuring it out and there’s so many options available to me, but right now I’m really drawn to working with nonprofits and focusing on tech for community health. That’s my path right now.

And what about your TrailBlazer project?
The idea behind TrailBlazer is that everybody creates their own path — we are all trailblazers in our own ways, whether we’re the first to start something in our family or community, or we are the first to think up a new idea, so even in the smallest ways, we’re all trailblazers. However, being a trailblazer can be tiring. I created this group to equip all those people starting their own journey with information and resources I was given, or wish I had been given, at the start of my journey.

In this first panel, I wanted to equip people who want to apply for graduate school but don’t know how. This was an opportunity to give back to the community — especially during the pandemic, which is such a stressful time — and provide some resources and best practices for applying to graduate school. In the panel, I wanted to highlight how we all came from different walks of life yet were able to make it into our graduate programs. The panelists really demonstrate that the best part about being a trailblazer is reaching back and helping others get to the places we now stand. It’s rewarding to support others as they advance on their own unique trajectories.

Any other advice for prospective students?
If you are interested or passionate about research, just go ahead and do it. And don’t be afraid to reach out to people. If you see someone whose work seems interesting or you’re just curious about them, send an email to say hi. If I read an article, and I find it really informative or interesting, I reach out to talk with the author! People are usually responsive and ready to help.

Then, when you begin your research program, always remember to set aside time for yourself. So for me personally, I love to go hiking and I love to read, so find those opportunities that fill your cup and keep you going!

Shani Murray