After earning an undergraduate degree in biology at Lesley University in 2017, Adriana Hernandez worked for a few years at Boston Medical Center, supporting a research study by collecting basic health data from patients. Along the way, she realized she was drawn to the older patients, an interest that prompted her to switch her focus to supporting research about centenarians. The more she learned about the field of gerontology, the more she decided that training in policy and applied research was the best way to meet her professional goals.
“I want to help underserved older adults,” says Hernandez. “I think I can make more impact by doing research on how to improve their lives.”
Kathrin Boerner, PhD, professor and director of the gerontology doctoral program at UMass Boston, met Hernandez as she was considering various graduate programs. Boerner recognized that Hernandez was a great candidate for the Department of Gerontology’s inaugural Frank Caro Scholarship for Social Justice in Aging. The scholarship honors Caro, the former gerontology department chair and Gerontology Institute director who was deeply committed to social justice. The award supports a gerontology doctoral student who wants to prioritize underrepresented communities in their research by covering tuition costs and providing research stipends and access to professional development.
“One of the things that makes up my entire identity is that I come from first-generation immigrant parents,” Hernandez says. Her father, Alfonso, fled the threat of being drafted into civil war in Nicaragua. Her mother, Sonia, left Guatemala to financially support her family back home. Eventually, they met in the United States. “My parents crossed the border with nothing. They worked as janitors and nannies.” Seeing her parents’ struggle to give her and her older brother and sister a better life has been her primary motivation to accomplish her goals.
The scholarship committee awarded Hernandez the scholarship in the fall of 2022 during her first semester as a gerontology doctoral student. She is working on two projects as a research assistant with the Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging. One project examines aging equity and whether all older adults in Greater Boston have the opportunity to age well. The other project examines whether senior centers across Massachusetts are providing inclusive programs and activities to the populations they serve.
The Caro scholarship relieves Hernandez of significant financial concerns about graduate school, allowing her to focus on her primary motivation. “I want to make my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile,” she says. “I have no option but to help people like my parents.”
“We are thrilled to have Adriana in the program,” Boerner says. “She has adjusted well to the demands of the PhD program, and she seems to be finding a true home in the field of gerontology.”
Hernandez plans to continue her research involvement in projects examining Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. She also hopes to work with Latinx communities in addressing and reducing disparities.