Features, On-Campus Profiles, Profiles

For Home and Humanity, Cota Explores Food Inequality Through Award-Winning Research

For many people, a trip to the local supermarket often lends itself to overstimulation. Grand pyramids of fresh fruit and endless options of milk make every choice a challenge.

But beyond the overwhelming selection, this shopping experience of sheer abundance represents a human right—access to affordable and nutritious food.

After growing up in Los Angeles and witnessing immense inequalities in food accessibility, Sebastian Cota, MCAS ’24, set out on a mission to make this right a reality for all Americans. 

“Growing up in LA and seeing the way we experienced food, I said, ‘I’m coming out of my city to learn how to address that,’” Cota said.

In high school, Cota volunteered at a safety net hospital—which accepts all patients, regardless of their insurance status—in Los Angeles. The hospital took in some of the city’s most vulnerable patients, making volunteering an eye-opening experience, Cota said.

“Recognizing where I live in my neighborhood and how our health is being influenced by years of injustice and racism frustrated me because, on top of that, we have less access to fresh food, high prevalence of fast food and processed food, but also the highest burden of chronic disease,” Cota said. “And I’m like, why is this happening in our city?” 

Though Cota entered Boston College as a psychology major on the premedical track, the subject of public health sparked his interest during the classes he took freshman year, he said.

Tracy Regan, professor of economics and one of Cota’s freshman-year teachers, said she was immediately impressed by his commitment to improving the conditions of his home community. 

“Sebastian was incredibly passionate about food insecurity and access to healthy food,” Regan said. “He did this really cool project where he was looking at food deserts, and he looked at the part of LA that he was from, and he put together this Google map to show the lack of healthy options that exist.” 

Regan also noted Cota’s unique determination to take advantage of all opportunities presented to him—a trait she noticed when Cota was a student on her summer study abroad trip studying health and healthcare in England and France. 

“He would take photographs of the farmer’s markets that were outside of the tube stations and talk about their affordability of food compared to what we eat in the United States,” Regan said. “He just soaked up every imaginable experience, and he was so disciplined. He would even go to the classroom before class and read books.”

During his sophomore year, before public health became an official major at BC, Cota applied to do an independent major in public health.

Philip Landrigan, director of the Program for Global Public Health and the Common Good, worked closely with Cota to build this independent major.

“I actually met him the summer before he came to Boston on a Zoom,” Landrigan said. “He was already asking incredibly deep questions and it was clear that he had already thought a lot about public health before even coming to BC.” 

In the summer of 2023, Cota was accepted to study with the Lewis Scholars Program, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s internship for undergraduate students interested in health equity. The program consisted of rigorous public health–related courses and hands-on experiences in disadvantaged urban environments, Cota said. 

“We had two weeks of intensive classes in health inequalities, epidemiology, into public health, and biostatistics,” Cota said. “Then we applied it to our practicum location.”

Toward the end of the program, interns were required to research a topic related to public health in an assigned area and present their findings at the CDC’s annual Summer Showcase. Cota said he was excited to use this opportunity to explore food inequality throughout New York, specifically in the neighborhood of Washington Heights, his field placement.

“I started going out and comparing bodegas and supermarkets, because in New York City, bodegas are the most common establishment for getting food,” Cota said. 

In his project, he compared the prices of several bodega food items in Washington Heights with items in uptown supermarkets and found that, on average, food sold in bodegas was more expensive. For his project, Cota won the CDC’s Williams-Hutchins Health Equity Award, an honor given to one Lewis Scholar per location each summer. 

While his work with the Lewis Scholars Program is over, Cota said his journey to make a meaningful impact on health inequality is just beginning. As a research assistant at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, Cota is currently working on researching language barriers in healthcare.

“We’re investigating the experience of patients who speak Spanish, who had a provider who didn’t speak Spanish during the pandemic, trying to understand barriers and how to improve their care in the future,” Cota said.

Cota was also recently accepted to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health to earn his masters degree, where he hopes to continue exploring and learning to address food inequality.

“My plan as a master’s student is to start interviewing the bodega owners and the community members to see what is some of the support [they] need,” Cota said. “How can we—as public health students, as future medical students—use our voice in advocacy to improve your health?” 

As president of the STEM and Health Organization for AHANA, Cota’s advocacy also addresses the BC community. He said he is currently working to send seventy of the group’s students to the Latino Medical Student Association’s Policy Summit in Washington D.C. to learn more about healthcare advocacy.

“We’re committed to supporting students who are underrepresented in STEM and premed fields,” Cota said. “I’m trying to make sure we have a sustainable program so that students can have tutoring, they can have mentorship, they can have access to the information that will benefit them for their careers.” 

Cota was also selected by Landrigan to be an ambassador for BC’s Department of Public Health, through which he can mentor and inspire younger students interested in the field, Landrigan said.

“I’ve seen him spend hours with students who are interested in public health, talking to them about what classes to take, and [he] has just educated scores of students about what public health is,” said Landrigan. 

Throughout his journey at BC and in his future endeavors at Columbia University and beyond, Sebastian said his Los Angeles community is always on the back of his mind. After earning his master’s, Cota said he plans to use everything he observes and learns to maximize his impact back home.

“I want to be immersed in an experience that gives me the skills to address the injustices I see at home,” Cota said. “How can I implement that when I go back home to LA in twenty years at my clinic? How can I include a food pantry in my clinic? How do I translate this disparity into action?”

March 14, 2024