Meet the Scholars: Shanaé Burch



Shanaé Burch is a EdD student in Health Education at Columbia University. She is part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2018.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are?  

I am a digital and performance storyteller, born and raised partly in the Los Angeles area before moving to South Jersey. I received a BFA degree in Acting from Emerson College and an EdM degree in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Prior to relocating to New York City in 2017, I worked as an actor in the New England area, where I joined the professional union Actors’ Equity Association. My research in health behavior will explore the effects of arts participation and cultural engagement on health outcomes.

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing?

Growing up, I had aspirations of becoming a medical doctor. However, the summer before my senior year of high school, when my mentor told me that “Medicine is great, but theater can heal people too,” it divinely redirected my academic path. As a result, I entered a theater program with a commitment to a career in health. At that point, my understanding of health was narrowly focused on medicine, and has since evolved to a commitment to using theater and storytelling as a tool to examine and address complex issues, such as the social determinants of health, social connectedness and creativity, health literacy, and overall well-being.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about?

I am participating in this year’s 2019 American Journal of Public Health Student Think Tank with a cohort of five other students. We have been given the privilege and platform to curate conversations inclusive of multiple voices and experiences. What excites me the most about the project is that our weekly meetings serve as a live space for us as public health students and early career professionals to challenge, question, and imagine new possibilities for interdisciplinary action beyond the traditional silos within our fields. I am also involved in a Black women’s health initiative called Community Conversations: Sister to Sister, which is another venue for addressing barriers to improved health outcomes through story sharing.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know?

The nomenclature “arts in health” is ever-evolving. As a result, it is likely that ownership of research in this area will continue to span many disciplines with varying titles. That being said, I recommend the Congressional Arts Handbook’s issue brief on “Arts in Health: Improving Health Through the Arts.” The handbook cites artist-directed programs and creative arts therapies and how they have positively impacted the needs of community members, health-related spending concerns, and quality of care issues.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

One researcher whom I admire is Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a renowned sociologist who pioneered the qualitative research methodology of portraiture, which bridges the realms of aesthetics and empiricism. I enrolled in her course, “The Art & Science of Portraiture,” and due to the intimate nature of the class, I was able to deeply connect with her as an artist and social scientist. I’m grateful that I was able to receive her mentorship while learning to employ portraiture during a project surveying the translation of a private narrative being made public about menstruation and reproductive health.

The following semester, Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot saw me perform in a Huntington Theater production of “Milk Like Sugar” by Kirsten Greenidge, and observed that I appeared more comfortable on stage than in her classroom. The conversation motivated me to identify all that was at risk if I continued to strip away my identity as a theater-making artist in an effort to become more “empirical.” Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot taught me that the dichotomy I created was untrue and that I didn’t have to be either/or within my scholarship. I can be an actor and a researcher.

How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral student?

The financial investment that the Health Policy Research Scholars Program has made in us as scholars is incredibly significant. Bolstering the leadership training with a financial award supports the aim of achieving health equity because it disrupts and dismantles what perpetuates institutional exclusion and oppression at the levels of access and representation. In my first year as a scholar, this program has gifted me the ability to attend conferences such APHA, the International Health Humanities Consortium, and the Arts in Health ECRN’s Research Intensive in England hosted by Dr. Daisy Fancourt of University College of London and Jill Sonke of the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine. More than anything, though, I am most grateful for learning alongside members of my cohort who uplift and graciously challenge me to show up as my whole-self in the classroom, at the podium, and before the entire world.

In the RWJF HPRS program we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be?

I must admit that this is such a new world for me, so the more I learn about RWJF’s Culture of Health framework and the Health in All Policies (HiAP) framework, the more possibilities I see for arts in health research to positively effect change. I am interested in the concept of “social prescription” and have been following along with developments in the UK related to their “Arts on Prescription” schemes. The National Health Service is currently providing millions of dollars in government funding for health providers to refer patients to arts and creative activities to address issues such as social isolation, loneliness, well-being, and quality of life through partnerships that foster cross-sector collaborations. If I could, I would use my research to center equity and advocate for such programs here in the U.S.

Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you had a talk show, who would your first three guests be?

If I had my own talk show, I would first need to invite Oprah. She was the first black woman to host a nationally syndicated show herself. We can reflect on the intersections of media and health. Also, I would want to reunite with her after our chance meeting in August 2008 where she told me, “Your future is so bright it burns my eyes.” Next, I would invite Obehi Janice to discuss her award-winning writing and work as an artist and comedian. Finally, I would host Kayhan Irani of Artivista Productions. Obehi and Kayhan are two friends more of the world should know about! Bonus: Lizzo as the show’s first musical guest!

Thank you so much for your time!

I should say the same. Thank you!

Shanaé’s bio


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