The historic city of Skagway, Alaska

RaCAS Research Preview

This story highlights just one of the innovative projects that students will display at the 20th annual Research and Creative Activities Symposium (RaCAS), which takes place April 28 in the Student Commons Building at University of Colorado Denver. RaCAS is an interdisciplinary showcase of creative works and scholarly activities by students at CU Denver and the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The small town of Skagway is known as the “Disneyland of Alaska,” where a historic district is maintained to look like a late-1890s boomtown. The gold rush town’s tourism industry plays a large role in the absence of healthy foods for the seasonal employees that move there every year. That was the topic of study for Lindsay Adams, a junior public health major at CU Denver.

“There’s definitely a division between the local residents who have their own subsistence patterns and seasonal employees. It’s also very weird to have a town with a very small local population suddenly explode with 10,000 tourists,” Adams said.

During her time in Skagway, Adams interned as a seasonal employee, assisted a CU Denver doctoral student in their research, and conducted her own Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP)-funded research. Her three-part study included a nutritional analysis, direct observation and participant interviews.

“Diet is huge. It affects our immune system and can either protect us from chronic diseases or put us at risk,” said Jean Scandlyn, PhD, professor of public health. Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity-related health complications, and various forms of cancer are primarily due to dietary patterns. “The biggest risk factors for those illnesses are related to our personal habits,” she said.

The historic town of Skagway, Alaska
The historic town of Skagway, Alaska, where Lindsay Adams did her research

Low nutritional scoring

For 3,000 seasonal employees, a weekly barge is one of their only sources of fresh fruits and vegetables. Not only is produce expensive, it is also scarce, often disappearing within a day. Most of the seasonal employees that Adams interviewed lived off rice, noodles, and macaroni and cheese. Many were reluctant vegetarians because the meat options in the grocery store were off-putting.

One part of Adam’s study was to determine the nutritional adequacy of restaurants and grocery stores based on the NEMS scale, developed by the University of Pennsylvania. With the high number of restaurants in Skagway, it leaves an impression that there is an abundance of healthy options from which to choose. Adams, however, found the nutritional scoring of the town is extremely low. “Living in a place without high-quality food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, is like living in a place that doesn’t have any medicine. It’s strange that more people don’t think of it in that way,” she said.

Social elements in food systems

The most surprising theme that came from her research was how important social elements played in food systems. Social groups tend to be built around job descriptions, and if you don’t get along with your co-workers, your diet could suffer. People who didn’t have a developed social network tended to be the first ones to scale back on their nutritional behaviors. Their focus was to keep themselves fueled rather than prepare a meal they would really enjoy or use to connect with others. Adams is still analyzing her research but these are some of the findings that she will be able to present at RaCAS.

Lindsay Adams, working with a student in Skagway
Lindsay Adams, working with a student in Skagway

In addition to her own work, Adams interned as an interpretive ranger for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park, where she educated children about the park’s natural and cultural resources. She also assisted CU Denver doctoral student Sara Newman with her qualitative research and the interview process. Newman acted as a second mentor and was the one who informed Adams about the research opportunities at Skagway, as she has been working there as an interpretive ranger for five years.

A key reason Adams is able to perform her own research is because she is a full-grant awardee from the CU Denver UROP program. UROP supports approximately 40 undergraduate students every year with either full or partial grants to pursue research projects under faculty mentorship. “This campus has a lot of students that don’t come from very privileged backgrounds,” Scandlyn said. “Being able to give them support to do research is critical, and the UROP program does that.”

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