UAB graduate uses family history and passion to mitigate health disparities as inspiration to advance sociological research

Sarah Haas’ childhood experiences in hospitals with her grandmother inspired her passion for medicine and influenced the focus of her thesis on cancer.
Written by: Katherine Kirk
Media Contact: Tehreem Khan

Sarah Haas postSarah Haas
Photography: Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, Sarah Haas spent a lot of time in hospitals and health care facilities with her grandmother who was fighting cancer. Her time in these environments not only inspired a passion for medicine but brought her full circle when she developed her research thesis focusing on breast cancer.

Haas is a student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham College of Arts and Sciences set to graduate April 27 with a degree in medical sociology and a minor in biomedical sciences. She will be attending Duke University after graduation to pursue a master’s degree in population health sciences. 

Haas is an Honors College student whose sociological thesis is about understanding how to prevent and detect disease in individuals from various backgrounds through behaviors and location. The ability to work on a thesis that ignites a conversation about cancer detection and health disparities helps Haas honor her grandmother and foster her passion for understanding societal implications on health. 

“I want to understand how racial, ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities change with increasing ability to prevent disease,” Haas said. “I am passionate about creating research that would make the younger version of me proud.” 

Navigating through her passions 

Her journey at UAB began in biomedical sciences at the School of Health Professions as she hoped to work in patient care. However, a year later, Haas realized it was not the best fit for her.

“About a year into biomedical sciences, while I was still interested in medicine, I did not think direct patient care was right for me,” Haas said. “I wanted more than caring for patients. I wanted to improve health care practices but did not know how.” 

While trying to navigate the right path, Hass took an introductory class in sociobiology with Elizabeth Baker, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Sociology. That class changed her mind as she learned how social and cultural factors interact to define health and illness. 

According to Haas, the class showed her that health care transcends beyond becoming a nurse or a doctor and introduced her to a different way of understanding illness and advancing quality health care –– through research. 

“I am extremely grateful for Dr. Baker’s guidance and mentorship as she showed me a path to research and health care when I was unsure about the ways I could pursue my goal of advancing health equity,” Haas said. 

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Baker mentored Haas for her honors thesis, and they spent most of her first year working together to develop a graduation plan. Haas researched postgraduate programs, which gave her insights into available programs that align with her interests. Then she did a pre-study for her Graduate Record Examinations and wrote a personal statement. Both experiences allowed Haas to be less stressed and more prepared for graduation. 

“The earlier students figure out their interests and goals, the more options they have when it is time to make a decision,” Baker said. “So, for Sarah, it was important that we developed a plan that would allow her to pursue her research interests and stay on track for timely graduation.”

Baker expressed her admiration for Haas and her work during her time in the sociology program. She says she could not be prouder of Haas and the opportunities awaiting her. 

“Sarah is very bright, determined and scientifically curious,” Baker said. “She is quiet but not shy. I have no doubt that she will do well in her chosen field."

Commitment to her passions: Research and social justice

After switching her major to medical sociology, Haas took advantage of many opportunities, such as presenting her research at the SouthEastern Undergraduates Sociology Symposium and the UAB Spring 2023 Research Expo.

Haas is grateful for these opportunities because she learned new research perspectives and processes while gaining presentation skills. “The SEUSS presentation was important for me because it was a low-stress environment for me to gain experience presenting,” Haas said. 

Sarah Haas Photography: Jennifer Alsabrook-TurnerAs a junior, she worked for the Magic City Data Collective with a team conducting several studies. One study that stands out to Haas is where she worked on analyzing Alabama’s schools to discover their successes and failures.

“Working with the Magic City Data Collective confirmed my love for research and expanded my knowledge on how to work with different types of data within a social setting,” Haas said. 

Since childhood, Haas has been a social justice enthusiast as she attended protests and meetings with family and friends. Studying medical sociology allowed her to converge her curiosity about medicine and her passion for health equity. One of the topics that interested her was the social implications of biological evolution, leading her to study humans’ ability to digest lactose after infancy in relation to their ancestry. 

Throughout her time at UAB, she wrote several papers exploring social, behavioral and cultural factors contributing to health care experiences. For example, one of her studies dove into the impact of social factors on the stress process within the health care system and disparities in access to quality care. 

To further feed her curiosity for social justice, Haas joined a student organization dedicated to educating students on advocacy, policymaking, beliefs and behaviors that can help make science more inclusive. 

“Changing the face of medicine to me means creating a space where individuals of all ages, races, backgrounds and sexuality are represented in research,” Haas said. “My goal has always been alleviating disparities in health care and medicine, and I am excited to continue that after graduation through sociology.”