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University of Wisconsin-Madison

PharmTox Student Wins Wisconsin Idea Fellowship

Clara Yu
Clara Yu, a student in the School of Pharmacy's undergraduate Pharmacology and Toxicology program.

Through the funding, Clara Yu will address food insecurity and healing among Southeast Asian and Black community members

By Katie Gerhards

For nearly a quarter of a century, the Morgridge Center for Public Service has sponsored Wisconsin Idea Fellowships, awarded to a handful of undergraduate students who are working with local or global partners to address community needs.

This year, Clara Yu, a University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Pharmacy Pharmacology and Toxicology student, is one of 12 undergraduates selected to receive one of these competitive fellowships. In total, eight projects were selected to receive the financial and logistical support throughout the 2021–22 academic year.

Cindy I-Fen Cheng
Cindy I-Fen Cheng, a professor in the UW Department of History, director of the campus’ Asian American Studies program.

“Clara Yu and her project partner, Christy Zheng, exemplify the most cherished values of the Wisconsin Idea as they advance their commitment to social justice beyond our campus borders and work to mitigate food insecurity among the broader Dane County community,” says Cindy I-Fen Cheng, a professor in the Department of History, director of the campus’ Asian American Studies program, and the project’s academic advisor.

With Zheng, who is double-majoring in biology and Asian languages and cultures, Yu will be using the funding to collaborate with Freedom, Inc. to address food insecurity and foster community healing. Freedom, Inc., is a Madison-based Black and Southeast Asian nonprofit organization that supports and advocates for low-income communities of color.

“We felt an urgency to partner with Freedom, Inc. because of the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the Black community and the effects the pandemic had on the Asian American community,” Yu says.

For example, a September 2020 report found that Asian Americans were 57 percent more likely to be hospitalized and Black patients 33 percent more likely to be hospitalized than their white counterparts.

Yu and Zheng’s project, “Southeast Asian and Black Communities Keeping Each Other Safe,” has two main initiatives: support of Freedom, Inc.’s food pantry and two community panel discussions featuring Freedom, Inc. leadership.

Christy Zheng
Christy Zheng, a UW–Madison undergraduate student who is partnering with PharmTox student Clara Yu on a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship-funded project.

“The two components address the immediate needs of our community through food assistance, while the community discussion panels enable us to have a long-term impact on our community through collective healing and education on social justice that combats racial injustices,” says Yu.

It was through her PharmTox coursework that Yu says she learned about the access to nutritious foods as an important social determinant of health, which made the food pantry a core focus of the project.

“The Freedom, Inc. food pantry specifically provides free, culturally appropriate foods for low- to no-income Southeast Asian and Black communities in Dane County,” says Yu. “Our funding from the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship enables us to restock the pantry for the first Friday of each month throughout the academic year.”

One panel discussion will take place in each of the Fall 2021 and Spring 2021 semesters, geared toward UW–Madison students and community members.

“As an Asian American, I believe it’s crucial that our project supports the Southeast Asian community as well as understand how to be a better ally to the Black community,” she says. “These community discussion panels are targeted to the college student population because we believe that the events throughout this year have come at a unique time in which we have just entered adulthood and have been forced to reckon with our race and identity like never before.”

The details of the panels are on hold, pending guidance around COVID-19 safety, but Yu says they will teach people about the process of building power within Black and Southeast Asian communities.

“Our project aims to have a significant influence on our discussion panel attendees for years to come and create a much better tomorrow for the community members who access the food pantry.”
—Clara Yu

“They aim to improve the Madison area by responding to and supporting collective healing from the racially discriminatory experiences in the United States,” she says. “Our project aims to have a significant influence on our discussion panel attendees for years to come and create a much better tomorrow for the community members who access the food pantry.”

Yu was attracted to the School’s undergraduate PharmTox program because of its emphasis on research and the biomedically-focused curriculum, which will prepare her to go on to medical school. Ultimately, Yu plans to become a primary care physician in a low-income and underserved community.

“This project will be invaluable for me to have a greater awareness of the community issues Southeast Asian and Black folx are facing in Madison,” she says. “Getting to witness programs created within Freedom, Inc. based on community needs will be important for my understanding of how to best serve the surrounding community.”