Leia Belt wants to tell stories. A doctoral student in the University of Iowa’s Graduate Program in Interdisciplinary Studies, she has already expanded her scholarly interests from a strict sociology focus to a multimodal, multidisciplinary approach. Now, with digital tools in hand, she is preparing to use her dissertation to tell one story in particular: “It’s more dangerous for a Black woman to have a baby in 2021 than it was for a Black woman to have a baby in 1968, when my mother was born. Why?”
To answer that question, Belt is using a two-pronged approach. The first component involves gathering and analyzing data, and as a Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio fellow, she spent summer 2022 doing just that. Using census and CDC data and GIS (Geographic Information System) mapping, Belt examined the intersections of racism and maternal and infant health outcomes. “Black maternal health is a crisis that is affecting the United States, and maternal health is an issue in the United States broadly,” she said.
The Studio’s Geographic Informational Specialist at the Studio, Jay Bowen, described Belt’s project as “investigating important and timely questions about structural inequality in maternal health outcomes for people of color in the Midwest” and shared that the Studio is “honored to be of service to her scholarship.”
Over the eight-week fellowship, Belt built an interactive map comparing Black maternal mortality and infant mortality with Black residents’ poverty rates, but as she explained, “It’s not just a map. It’s about what your map is saying to the people looking at it. When I got the census data, I thought, ‘How could someone who is more creative minded like me take something from this? Or how could someone who isn’t trained in any social science take something from this? Because this is public data. This is data about their lives. And so that’s what really got me interested in digital methods.”
Although she initially intended to focus her attention on Iowa in response to a gap in the literature, Belt soon found that the state’s rural populations created “red tape” issues like a potential lack of anonymity in health-related information. “When I was reading and being theoretical, I could critique how the literature has glossed over [the maternal health crisis in Iowa], but once you get into the literature and into the data, it’s hard to tell the story with the data that you have,” she shared.
Despite this hurdle, Belt ultimately determined that her dissertation could expand upon the mapping project by more closely examining the intersections of poverty, sexism, and racism in Iowa and the United States more broadly. “The [summer] project was really as one-dimensional as you could get, so I could wrap my head around what it was that I was doing. The questions of intersectionality are really coming out more in my dissertation,” she clarified.
To further explore these questions of intersectionality, Belt has turned to the second definitive feature of her research: centering her community. “Something is going on [with Black maternal health] that is affecting the community, and I wanted to have that conversation not just within the ivory tower. I also wanted my grandmother, my partner, or my dad to look at the maps and be like, ‘That’s really what’s happening?’ because clearly what we’re doing in the ivory tower isn’t enough and isn’t working. We need the community to tell us what’s going on,” she insisted.
For her summer fellowship, this reality translated into designing a project that could be accessible and appreciated by members of the public. For her dissertation, it means expanding her analysis by gathering qualitative data. As she shared, “I’m going to be asking women and birthing folks in Iowa, ‘What were your experiences like? What were your barriers to care? Why are you going to maternity care two counties away when there’s something in your backyard?’ Some of these things I’ve seen in the data, but we can only answer part of these questions with quantitative data.”
Belt’s choice to incorporate multiple forms of data into her work makes sense, given her interdisciplinary approach to graduate school and her interest in multimodal projects. As it stands, her dissertation committee includes faculty members from the sociology, psychology, and epidemiology departments, as well as a potential member from the department of geographical and sustainability sciences. “In one way I have no department, but in another way, I have a connection to five departments,” she said. Between courses in public health and sociology, a certificate in digital methods, and an in-progress certificate in African American studies, Belt sees her scholarship as transcending departmental lines and research categories. More importantly, she sees it as “a response” to social issues and an opportunity to contribute to social movements.
In a similar manner, Belt’s career plans are rooted in her desire to contribute to something bigger than herself. “I want to do good research, I want to work with communities, but I also know that I want to eventually be on a tenure path, because I know what my advisors have done for me,” she clarified. Between shared cultural understandings, meaningful and supportive conversations, and thoughtful mentorship, she knows firsthand how faculty members can directly and profoundly shape students’ graduate school experiences—for good or for bad.
“Every time I’m told that studying racism is not empirical or that the scholar I want to choose is more of an activist, not really a scholar, when you instead have someone who understands” the legitimacy of a given research approach and the extra work of preparing rebuttals to such critiques, that level of mentorship can be transformative. More than anything, Belt wants to be that type of mentor for students in the future. “I feel like I have a social and spiritual responsibility in my work that I hope guides my work,” she clarified. For that reason, no matter her research topic or project form or ultimate career path, Leia Belt will always return to telling stories about people, for people.