Ending HPV with Social Media

Raising HPV and Cancer Prevention Awareness, One Instagram Post at a Time

January 4, 2023
By the time Oriana Parsa completed the HICCC's YES! in THE HEIGHTS summer program in 2020, she had cofounded EndHPVNYC, an initiative to advocate for HPV prevention and cancer prevention education with an Instagram campaign and community outreach plan. (Image Courtesy of Oriana Parsa)

Rooted in a personal connection to cancer, Oriana Parsa, a high school student turned health advocate, has her eyes set on a career in cancer. Having lost a loved one to the disease at the start of the  COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Parsa sought an outlet to better understand cancer and learn more.

“I was angry at cancer, but then also strangely fascinated by how it worked,” says Parsa, now 16 and a senior at The High School for Math, Science and Engineering in Manhattan. “I was overflowing with questions. So when I got an email from my guidance counselor about the CURE program at Columbia, it sounded absolutely perfect.”

CURE, which stands for Continuing Umbrella of Research Experiences, offers unique training and career development opportunities to enhance diversity in cancer research. Funded by the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center, the 2020 summer program hosted by CURE consisted of a month-long virtual course that placed students in working groups to develop anti-vaping campaigns and human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination outreach through social media. (CURE has since been renamed to YES! in THE HEIGHTS.) HPV is a common virus that can lead to several different cancers, including cervical cancer, head and neck cancer and anal cancer. 

By the end, Parsa had cofounded EndHPVNYC, an initiative to advocate for HPV prevention and education with an Instagram campaign and community outreach. She started by designing 20 or so eye-catching posts, each depicting a carefully-chosen fact about HPV, its link to cancer, and how the vaccine can help protect individuals.

Today, she still actively leads the EndHPVNYC campaign, presents to and creates outreach materials for other high schoolers, and conducts interviews with HPV-cancer survivors. Parsa officially became an intern for the cancer center in April of 2022, where she works under her former CURE mentor, pediatrician Ashley B. Stephens, MD. She also goes back every summer to lead HPV working groups with YES! in THE HEIGHTS, teaching the current students the art of creating educational, engaging, and visually appealing health posts.

“It's truly amazing that there's actually a cancer-preventing vaccine out there. Some people might not know about it yet, some might just need more information to trust it — and if we can help them get there, then we can prevent people from getting cancer. And that’s worth everything,” Parsa says.

This past April, her hard work culminated in a presentation at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting in Denver, CO, the premiere national pediatric research conference. She co-led a workshop titled, “Vaccine Hesitancy in Caregivers of Pediatric Patients.” Her talk described her work with EndHPVNYC and EndCOVID19NYC.

Parsa, a Dominican-Persian New Yorker raised in upper Manhattan, is a budding physician, an aspiration reinforced by her experiences at Columbia.

“Right now, my dream specialty is pediatric oncology. It inspires and motivates me more and more every day.”