As an undergraduate nursing student at UW-Madison, Maichou Lor tried three ways of getting information about cancer screening from Hmong adults: using written surveys with true-false or check-box answers, and reading questions out loud.

“It didn’t matter which format we created. We had blanks coming back to us,” Lor said.

Later, as a graduate student in nursing at the university, she came up with a solution. She developed a survey tool that combines written text in English, prerecorded oral translations in Hmong and color-coded responses, so older Hmong people who can’t read even in their native language can participate.

The project helped Lor, of Madison, get a Ph.D. in nursing from UW-Madison in May.

She is believed to be the first Hmong-American nurse to get a Ph.D. in nursing, according to Seng Alex Vang, of the University of California-Merced, who tracks doctoral degrees in the Hmong community. Another Hmong-American with a background in social work and education, who isn’t a registered nurse, also got a Ph.D. in nursing this year, and a third Hmong-American got a different kind of doctorate for nurse practitioners, Vang said.

Yeng Her, also of Madison, is believed to be the first Hmong-American to get an M.D.-Ph.D., after receiving the degrees this year at Mayo Clinic, as the Wisconsin State Journal reported in June.

Lor, 29, said she hopes her doctorate in nursing will help her close gaps in access to health care among Hmong-Americans and give them a better understanding of their health.

“Nurses play a critical role in helping patients understand their health information, and being an advocate for them,” she said.

She will begin a two-year fellowship this month in informatics and data visualization at Columbia University in New York. Afterward, she hopes to get a faculty position at UW-Madison or another research university in the Midwest.

Barbara Bowers, associate dean for research at UW-Madison’s School of Nursing and Lor’s adviser, said relatively few Hmong people engage in preventive health care, and data about their health status often gets lumped in with other Asian-American groups.

“The Hmong end up being invisible,” Bowers said. Lor “is really on a mission to do something about that. ... She was just gung-ho from day one.”

Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Lor moved to Madison with her family in 1994, at age 6. The second oldest of five children, she started first grade, at Midvale Elementary School, without knowing how to read or write in English or Hmong.

“It was pretty scary coming to a new country, a new culture, learning to navigate everything, as simple as getting groceries, going to school,” she said.

She also attended Lowell Elementary School and O’Keeffe Middle School before graduating from East High School in 2006.

After picking up English, Lor helped her parents and others navigate medical appointments. She saw many gaps in communication, which prompted her to pursue nursing, she said.

“I’m a very trusted person in the community,” she said. “If I become a nurse, I can be a bridge.”

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David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.