My Turn: “Reflections by a High School Researcher” by Thaint Thu

Hello all, my name is Thaint and I am a sophomore at Hutch Tech high school and an intern at the Food Systems Planning and Healthy Communities Lab (Food Lab) at the University of Buffalo. I am from the West Side of Buffalo and have family roots in Burma. You might ask: how did a high school student end up working in a university research lab?

I first heard of the Food Lab while at my job working at an urban farm youth organization called Massachusetts Avenue Project (MAP). My supervisor at MAP, Rebekah Williams (Youth Education Director at MAP), asked if I was interested in research that the Food Lab is conducting. I was told the project I could work on is related to food access within the community of people from Burma in Buffalo. Rebekah figured that I would be interested in the project because I worked with her during my freshmen year in the Citizenship and Organizing group of MAP. The project was almost surprising – I did not know people were interested in the Burmese community, let alone what we eat. When I talk to people and they ask me what ethnicity I am, I say I am from Burma and they don’t even know where that is. This project shows me that there are people willing to learn learn about the Burmese community.

The Food Lab works with people in and outside of UB such as the community and local governments. To create equitable food systems and healthy communities, the Food Lab Provides support to community advocates, planners, and local governments.

When I first came to the Food Lab for a tour I was quite impressed but I thought I was going to see vials of chemicals or medicine because of the word “lab”. I expected to see a desk with a sink just like my science lab room. I also expected to see a burner and some flasks. Instead, the lab had multiple computers and desks. It also has many plants, I didn’t expect to see any plants at all. Still, it’s quite nice and I like the windows around the room, you can look outside and see other students walking to their classes.

When I began my work in the Food Lab I had to take a few online courses for the Institutional Review Board training, as all university research must be approved by this. It was hard; the readings were long and the questions were very specific. The project I work on is called DDFAR – Dealing with Disparities in Food Access of Refugees.

I had to read pages upon pages on how to properly conduct an interview, which I didn’t mind since I do enjoy reading and I needed to it to prepare myself.

After hearing about it, I realized that I am Burmese and as I have grown up, I haven’t been doing anything to be a part of the Burmese community. Celebrations such as the water festival would carry on and I just wouldn’t go. So doing this is almost like helping out the community in a sort of way. Secondly, I wanted to do something that involves colleges just so I can be prepared and see what goes on at college. I honestly didn’t even know colleges conducted such projects so I learned new things everyday.

As an official Food Lab member now, my favorite part is transcribing interviews that others have already conducted. The interviewees range from Burmese people that agreed to talk to us and other people such as community workers. Not only does transcribing help with my listening and typing skills, but it takes me back to my native language. Listening to these interviews helps my understanding and pronunciation of the Burmese language. I moved here to the US when I was just three or four years old. Moving here wasn’t a bad thing but growing up here and being “forced” to learn English almost makes me lose my ability to be connected to my native Burmese language. Fortunately my parents speak Burmese at home to each other and I understand Burmese but I can not read or write it, so that’s why I enjoy transcribing so much.

Listening to the interviews also has shown me what other families have gone through that I didn’t have to. It makes me appreciate life and the hard working parents that I have. Some experiences that other families have that are similar to mine is that when we came to the United States the language barrier was obviously a problem. Whenever we had questions about what was going on, we could not ask anything due to our language barrier.

Other than working on the DDFAR project I attend a Food Lab meeting that takes place every other week. It’s during these meetings that I get to see all of the Food Lab members together. And I get to see what they’re up to and the other projects they’re involved in.

Having an internship at a research university during high school is going to look good on my college applications. The DDFAR project also pertains to health and chronic diseases. Since I want to go to college for pediatrics, I can learn a lot from this project alone and take it on to my college career. Maybe, this was even a once in a lifetime chance. So I said yes to this opportunity.

My Turn is written by team members to  share reflections on their experience as part of a research team.