Looking at a map of Gainesville’s underserved areas, Rajeeb Das wondered what life was like for the families who lived there. So he decided to move into one of these neighborhoods to find out for himself.
Family and friends were concerned about his decision, but Das, a statistical research coordinator at the UF College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics and grant writer at the department’s Family Data Center, had already made up his mind.
“If I could experience what these families were dealing with on a daily basis, I knew I’d better understand what the numbers meant,” he said.
This attitude of going the extra mile to help others is the reason Das was recently honored twice as the inaugural recipient of the Community Service Award during the UF Health Science Center and campus-wide Superior Accomplishment Award ceremonies.
“Mr. Das has played an integral role in the college’s mission to promote community health, empower families to take charge of their health and reduce the health disparities in the region,” said Michael L. Good, M.D., dean of the UF College of Medicine. “He is an inspiration because of his compassion for our area’s most fragile populations.”
Jeffrey Roth, Ph.D., program director of the Family Data Center and a research professor of pediatrics at UF, said Das played in instrumental role in pinpointing the “unknown areas of need.”
“Rajeeb worked with faculty to take a look at a density map of communities that have adverse conditions,” Roth said. “He paid attention to the areas that are sometimes overlooked because they are near nicer neighborhoods.”
After studying the geographic information from maps, Das decided to voluntarily move into a local low-income neighborhood for six months. Through that experience, the Gainesville native gained insights that helped him write highly competitive grant proposals to accurately address the needs of the residents.
“I saw people living in a broken state, neglected and forgotten by their community,” he said. “Little things like sidewalks and quietness didn’t exist there. But the people there are just like us, trying to live a life.”
At the Family Data Center, Das collects data on maternal and child health and works collaboratively on projects with state agencies such as the departments of Health, Education, Children and Families, and Juvenile Justice. But just getting numbers and figures on paper has never been his final goal.
“I enjoy numbers and statistics,” he said. “But if it’s not applied, what is the point? What can we do with these numbers for our community?”
Das’ colleagues, who nominated him for the award, had no difficulty obtaining recommendation letters. Jill Bischoff, training and education coordinator at the Family Data Center, said people from in and outside of the university jumped on the opportunity to praise Das’ efforts.
“Rajeeb is great at sharing passion and connecting people,” she said. “People realize that what he does is genuine.”
In 2009, Das launched the School Health Interdisciplinary Program, which includes nearly 60 student volunteers from colleges across campus to provide weekly after-school programs on science, math and physical fitness at elementary schools serving low-income families.
Outside of work, Das regularly coordinates events to donate and install bicycle headlights, taillights and bells to increase safety for day laborers who often have to bike to worksites before dawn. He also volunteers to repair bikes for free at the weekly downtown Farmers Market.
“One of the fondest memories in my childhood is riding my bike with friends,” Das said. “I was shocked to find out that many of these children have never ridden bikes.”
He hopes to continue these outreach activities and get more people involved from different colleges across campus and around the community.
“UF is a great place to work because people care about these things and there is a huge pool of volunteers who are interested and passionate about their community,” he said.
During the little spare time he has, Das, who is currently pursuing a doctorate in applied statistical methods at the UF College of Education, likes to travel. But the majority of his time is spent out in the community and at city meetings to find help for those who need it the most.
“Doing things for others feels natural to me,” Das said. “I’ve always wanted to do these things and always will. It’s something I need to do.”