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Student Researchers Find Their Way (BYU BFFs)

January 2021

Two female students wearing masks walking on campus with trees in fall colors.Photo credit: BYU Photo/Tyler Richardson. Alyssa Baer and Ida Tovar are examining perceived safety among nighttime walking commuters on college campuses, how perceptions of safety differ between genders, and what the health-related effects might be. As undergraduates, they have worked as teaching assistants and have conducted and published research, presented at conferences, and competed nationally.

Alyssa Baer’s and Ida Tovar’s paths converged at Brigham Young University as teaching assistants and student researchers in the public health program. As they prepare to graduate, their final research project together looks at how female college students think about the safety of walking at night on campuses.

“We’re designing the research to better understand environmental and cultural factors that impact perceptions of safety,” says Baer. The study, which is still in its early stages, is based on research previously conducted in Europe.

The two are working with associate professor Robbie Chaney and plan to have the bulk of the research done by graduation in April. They are excited to present at the National Society for Public Health Education conference in April.

“We hope to take what we learn and give it back to the community—BYU or Provo City,” says Tovar. “We want our work to improve people’s lives.”

When considering her association with Baer, Tovar says, “I am grateful for my friendship and professional association with Alyssa. I know my time working with her has helped me grow, and I thank the Lord for the opportunity I have had to associate with a woman of her talent.”

About Tovar, Baer says, “At BYU mentors are at the front of the room, but they are also in the seats next to you. Ida is a mentor and a friend. She has a passion for learning and for life, and I count my experiences working with her as some of the most influential of my time at BYU.”

Living and Loving BYU’s Mission

Tovar is from Salt Lake City and calls her decision to attend BYU a “guided journey.” In high school she came to BYU for sports camps and to participate in the Summer of Academic Refinement program. “As I spent time at BYU, I knew that being here would offer me a safe and unique environment to learn and grow.”

Baer grew up in Holladay, Utah, and although she considered other schools, she felt prompted to come to BYU. Since coming here, she has made the most of her time in Provo. “I am grateful to have worked with students and faculty on service, research publications, and teaching and presentation opportunities both at BYU and throughout the community,” she says. “These experiences have helped me gain confidence in my plans for graduate school and my future.”

For both women, BYU’s focus on the “balanced development of the total person” has been a game changer. Tovar says, “BYU’s learning environment has caused me to engage with class material and create personal connections with principles taught.” And Baer says, “Studying the gospel in connection with the curriculum has helped me integrate my relationship with God into every part of my life.”

Inspiring Learning Since Early On

Tovar and Baer are impressed by the range of learning, social, and service opportunities available at BYU. Tovar remembers, “When I first got here there were so many invitations to come and see—to join a club or a committee or a group, to explore my interests, or to figure out what I wanted to study.”

Their introductions to conducting research also came early on. Baer says, “I was taking one of the first classes in the major from Professor Chaney. He suggested getting involved in under- graduate research, and soon after meeting with him, I became a teaching assistant. Later that semester I joined one of his research teams, and I immediately loved it. I get to take skills that I’ve learned in the classroom and apply them to real-life settings guided by a mentor who is there to help me.”

On their experiences as women studying in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), they say that opportunities have been theirs for the taking and that mentors and role models have been available and helpful.

Tovar says, “Women in STEM are awesome; they are my heroes. I have professors and other mentors in the public health profession that I look up to with gratitude not only for what I’ve learned from them but also for sharing with me examples of how they got to where they are, their examples of learning from good times and hard times, and how they have learned to balance life.”

Much of Tovar’s and Baer’s educational journey at BYU has been shared. Professor Chaney says, “Both Ida and Alyssa have enormous capacity to absorb many significant tasks at once. They are leaders among their peers and are always uplifting and encouraging those around them.

When I think of people who will make the world a better place, these two come to mind.”

Both women gratefully acknowledge the unseen supporters who have helped them.

“Donors have had a huge impact on what I’ve done as a student,” Tovar says. “I have had moments where financial pressures felt over- whelming, but when I’ve needed help, it came. I’m so grateful to the donors who helped me even though they don’t know me.”

Baer says, “I am so grateful for alumni and other donors. Their financial and advisory support has helped me gain experience that I would not have had the means or networks to explore. I have been blessed to see the generosity of our community, and that makes me want to pay it forward.”

Looking Forward

Tovar’s and Baer’s paths will diverge next year as both pursue advanced degrees. Tovar would like to get a master’s in public health and an accelerated nursing degree so she can help communities and individuals be healthier. Baer wants to work in the social impact field, bridging public health gaps between government, business, and nonprofit sectors.

“Studying at BYU has been a climb, and I am grateful to be approaching the summit,” says Tovar. “BYU has shaped my intellectual and spiritual character. I am committed to lifelong learning and service. BYU has lived up to every- thing I hoped it would be.”