Keren Herrán

Major: Individualized Study


Title: Analysis of Mental Well-being of Environmental Migrants in Maryland

Describe your project:
I aim to identify and assess the mental health consequences that adult environmental migrants experience as a result of their relocation to Maryland. By doing so, I hope to inform health professionals, researchers, and policymakers within Maryland of the psychological state of environmental migrants within our population and how we can best serve their unique mental health needs.

Who is your mentor for your project? Why did you choose them?
My mentor for this research project is Dr. Dawn Biehler, Associate Professor within the Geography and Environmental Systems department. I chose to pursue this investigation under the guidance of Dr. Biehler because she has extensive experience in analyzing the various subfields that intersect within my project (human geography, environmental justice, and public health) and because she has been an incredible adviser and role model for me during my academic career at UMBC. I have so much to learn from her!

How did you become interested in this project?
I became interested in this project upon meeting with Dr. Biehler the fall of my sophomore year, the fall of 2018, when I met with her to share my public health interests. I expressed to Dr. Biehler that as an aspiring researcher, I wanted to focus my efforts on projects that benefited minority populations, especially Latinos. Dr. Biehler encouraged me to consider how advancing knowledge to solve international health concerns can be done without having to even leave the Baltimore region, given that this area has a wealth of diversity of migrants and refugees. She noted that within Maryland, the topic of analyzing the health consequences faced by individuals who relocate here due to natural disasters, environmental degradation, or climate change, was understudied. She proposed that I consider evaluating how the health conditions of this specific subgroup of migrants change as a result of their migration journey to Maryland and adjustment to a new culture.

This project proposal resonated deeply with my conviction to serve marginalized and underserved communities. Conducting this study is also very personal to me since my family is from Puerto Rico and El Salvador, two regions that have both been hit hard by environmental phenomenon and disasters. After Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 hurricane, hit Puerto Rico in fall 2017, the U.S Census Bureau estimated that 97,000 Puerto Ricans left the island and migrated to the continental United States. Of these thousands of Puerto Ricans, how many suffered a disruption of medical therapies because of their relocation? How many experienced inaccess to their usual medications along their journey? How many faced mental health consequences, such as survivor’s guilt, after their relocation?

For El Salvador, the nation’s ongoing environmental catastrophe of extreme droughts on the Pacific Coast is increasingly exacerbated by climate change and hotter weather patterns. Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast agrarian communities (the “Dry Corridor” region) are also experiencing this crisis. According to the World Food Program, residents of the Dry Corridor report that recent failed crop seasons have been the worst they have ever seen in the past 35 years. As a result, it is no surprise that the emigration from these counties augmented by 500% between 2010-2015 as more and more farmers have been unable to continue to sustain their livelihood and have decided to migrate in order to escape malnutrition and poverty. What health consequences do these migrants experience as a result of their environmental migration? Are their needs met by their new host communities despite potential lack of citizen status? Do language barriers pose a threat to the health of this already vulnerable group?

What has been the hardest part about your research/what was the most unexpected thing about being a researcher?
Although I am currently in the initial stages of my research, I can foresee that it will be difficult to recruit migrants to participate in this interview study and share their experiences with me. Migrants are a vulnerable group in society and can be legitimately distrusting of researchers due to disrespect they have been shown by academics in the past. Furthermore, now that I have narrowed my research question to be an evaluation specifically of how environmental migrant’s mental health changes after migration, I also predict that discussing certain painful memories may cause potential participants to decline wanting to participate in interviews. Thankfully however, the funding UMBC has awarded me via the URA Scholars Program will allow me to purchase gifts as a token of appreciation and thanks that I can use as an incentive for migrants to participate in my study.

What has been the most rewarding part?
Thus far, conducting preliminary interviews with UMBC college students who are environmental migrants has been incredibly rewarding. I am inspired by my peers’ resilience and optimism despite the mental health challenges they have faced due to their environmental migration journeys.

How will you disseminate your research?
I will be presenting my research both at URCAD and the INDS Capstone Presentation conference. I hope to submit my presentation to other conferences as well and I aspire to publish my results in an academic journal.

What is your advice to other students about getting involved in research?
I would advise other students who are considering getting involved in research to identify professors on campus whose work they find interesting. Chances are that even if you are not sure what project idea you want to pursue, if your interests align with those of your mentor, they can help point you in the right direction and get you started!

What are your career goals?
I aspire to ultimately enroll in a public health doctoral program that will equip me with the added training and credentials necessary to work in international settings alongside health workers, designing creative programs that mitigate health issues in Latin America and the Caribbean. Organizations such as the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, CARE International, John Snow Inc., ISGlobal, and Jhpiego are all research-based nonprofit institutions I could see myself working in.


Get back jack!