Zeynep Elshaer, who is majoring in biomedical sciences and Spanish at UCF, wants to be a doctor who won’t let language get in the way of delivering good care.

In her own family, Elshaer has seen firsthand the struggle of her Middle Eastern mother to grasp what exactly a doctor is telling her. It wasn’t just a language barrier, either, Elshaer says. It was a lack of cultural understanding that made delivering good healthcare advice a challenge. The problem isn’t unique to people from the Middle East. Hispanics and people from the Caribbean who make their home in Central Florida often run into similar challenges, she says.

That’s why Elshaer is conducting her honors thesis research into finding ways to communicate health messages across diverse communities.

She got a taste for the power of communication through her work with UCF Spanish Professor Tyler Fisher. He advocates that STEM and language skills are complimentary and necessary. Elshaer had the opportunity to see the power of the combination through her work on the Positive Parenting Fables program.

She helped create animated short fables that communicate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advice to parents in a clear and entertaining way. Elshaer worked with a team that made editorial decisions and wrote the stories, which graphic artists turned into animation. Translators added sound. The short animations, which have won multiple awards, were written so that the messages could be understood by Haitian, Spanish-speaking and Creole communities.

In her current research, Elshaer seeks to understand the common views regarding infant vaccinations among Haitian, Hispanic and anglophone communities in Central Florida. Her research indicates there are many misconceptions, which in some communities have been turned into urban legends. For example, some parents incorrectly believe that vaccines cause autism or diseases. These stories have the potential to shape major decisions, Elshaer says, which is why it’s important to get the initial messages right.

“There isn’t significant data on whether or not these communities are being equally impacted by the way that we are currently spreading healthcare messages,” she says.

She aims to collect the data so that healthcare providers can see the role communication plays. She knows that when she becomes a doctor, communicating clearly will be a priority.

“I feel that being able to speak another language allows me to help more people and connect with them deeply,” she says.

Elshaer is an undergraduate teaching assistant for Immunology and serves as a UCF STEM Ambassador. She expects to graduate in 2021.