Meet the Researcher, Kathryn Olszowy, Assistant Professor, New Mexico State University
By Jeanette Torres, NM WRRI Program Coordinator
This month for Meet the Researcher we had the pleasure of interviewing Kathryn Olszowy, an assistant professor for the Department of Anthropology at New Mexico State University (NMSU) since 2019. She teaches several courses including biological anthropology, human health and biological variation, and evolutionary medicine. According to Olszowy, the most crucial aspect of teaching is to help students improve their scientific literacy and assist them in understanding social and structural factors that shape human health and wellness. She also emphasizes the importance of encouraging students to grow in their confidence, knowledge, and skills. Helping students realize their potential in creative and productive research outlets is one of the main reasons she values her role as a mentor to any interested undergraduate and graduate students.
One of Kathryn’s students, Hailey Taylor, was recently awarded a New Mexico Water Resources Research Institute (NM WRRI) Student Water Research Grant for the project entitled, Living with Water-Insecurity: How do people adapt and cope with poor water quality and access?. This research will investigate how residents of colonias in Doña Ana County, New Mexico adapt and cope with inadequate water quality/supply. This study will then examine the potential mental and physical impacts limited water can have on individuals living in these underdeveloped communities along the US-Mexico border. Olszowy comments that Hailey is not only interested in measuring people’s own perceptions of water insecurity but also what they would like to see as possible solutions. This research is a part of Kathryn’s more extensive research study funded by The Mountain West Clinical and Translational Research Infrastructure Network (MW CTR-IN). Further information on Hailey’s study can be found in NM WRRI’s July eNews article located here.
Kathryn earned her BA (2007) from Colorado State University in Fort Collins and MA (2009) in Anthropology from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She received her MS in Biomedical Anthropology (2011) and her PhD (2014) in Anthropology from Binghamton University located in New York. From there, Olszowy continued her education and acquired her MPH (2019) from Cleveland State University in Ohio.
Kathryn’s research and teaching interests center around an assortment of different areas, including human biocultural variation and adaptation, intergenerational transmission of poor health, and food and water insecurity. With her background in obesity and chronic disease research, she is involved in several concurrent projects, with water research being one of the most recent additions to her repertoire. Some of her projects include looking at the role stress plays in male/female obesity disparities, and performing studies on the physical and mental health outcomes associated with population displacement due to natural disasters. She is also working on a project with her colleague, Dr. Mary Alice Scott, a medical anthropologist, documenting experiences given by people living in rural communities in Doña Ana County during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kathryn “became interested in water research after a plenary session held at the Human Biology Association meeting in 2019. The session was called, Life and Death: Human Biology and Water, and highlighted the fact that water is an understudied aspect of human biology, even though it is essential to us socially and physiologically.” This encouraged her to investigate possible correlations between household water insecurity and the risk of developing conditions like obesity and diabetes. Olszowy states that there is very little literature describing these relationships and believes this kind of research is critical in the U.S. border region due to issues with water scarcity and tensions between industry (e.g., agriculture and oil), community, and individual needs. To help fill in the gaps between water and health research, The MW CTR-IN funded Olszowy with a pilot grant for her research entitled, Water Insecurity: A neglected social determinant of chronic disease risk (2019), which is an integral part of Hailey Taylor’s research as described above. In this study, a survey of colonia residents in Doña Ana County was conducted regarding their experiences of water insecurity and how it impacts their diet, mental health, and potentially chronic disease risk. Once completed, this project will help provide insight for further research associated with water uncertainty and its possible connection to people developing mental and physical health risks.
In addition to her research responsibilities, Olszowy is involved in several university and community service efforts. She is a member of the NMSU COVID-19 Vaccine Tiger Team and assists the Department of Anthropology as their Darwin Day Coordinator and as a member of the Assessment Committee. Within her community, she has volunteered to help with rural food distribution, fundraising, and was an AmeriCorps service member for their cancer services program.
Regarding future career goals, Kathryn mentioned she would like to become more involved with applied and community-based participatory research around Las Cruces and southern New Mexico. She aspires for her research “to be relevant to community concerns and contribute to community-driven improvements in health and wellness.” By working more with the community, Olszowy hopes to gain the attention of local community students and interest them in the anthropology field and NMSU programs dedicated to mentoring and research involvement. She would also like to mention that her research would not have been possible without collaborators at the Doña Ana County Department of Health and Human Services.
Kathryn anticipates making more contributions to water research, NMSU, and NM WRRI in the future once in-person research collaborations have fully resumed. She expressed that “because of the pandemic, a lot of opportunities to connect and collaborate were postponed over the past year and a half, so I am eager to explore opportunities with NM WRRI and across NMSU as we start to open up.”
Kathryn stated that one of the most important lessons she learned during the COVID-19 pandemic was to be flexible with research expectations. Next year, she looks forward to applying for larger external grants to further her MW CTR-IN research between water insecurity, mental distress, and food insecurity with the possibility of acquiring funding for additional student involvement.
As a parting message for those looking to enter the research field, Kathryn stressed the importance that “if you have an interest, something that sparks your curiosity, pursue it. Read about it, talk to experts, find where the gaps are.” She believes this is critical in learning how to view problems from multiple dimensions and discover where research still needs to be performed. As experienced firsthand, Olszowy understands that research is not always a neat and orderly process, and making adjustments should be expected.