Social and Spatial Epidemiology

The social and spatial epidemiology unit seeks to understand the ways in which social, political, cultural, and economic circumstances influence our chances for a healthy life. We combine theory from the social sciences with rigorous epidemiological methods so that we can illuminate the connections between social factors and health and use what we find to improve health. Within this broad frame we have a special interest in the connections between social inequalities and health inequalities. 

The unit has four aims. First, we aim to produce knowledge about the influence of social circumstances on health with a special emphasis on social inequalities in health. Second, we aim to train and mentor a new generation of scholars and practitioners who have the capacity to conduct rigorous research on the role of social factors in health. Third, we aim to leverage what we learn to improve population health and reduce health inequalities locally, nationally, and across international borders. Fourth we seek to translate and disseminate our work to policy makers, thought leaders, media, and the public and reinforce the message that social determinants of health are primary drivers of population health. 

Our blog and associated social media sites are the primary vehicles for our translation and dissemination efforts. The blog hosts synopses of our ongoing research and recent publications in the scientific literature, provides a calendar of upcoming events, hosts an archive of public use Info-graphics on social determinants of health, and streams Social Epi Radio, a series of curated Spotify music streams. Our students are involved in building the blog and in creating the Info-graphics and music streams.

Anchored upstream from the more proximal determinants of disease, research in the social and spatial epidemiology unit engages collaboratively with the other epidemiology unit in the Department, so that the full cascade of influences on health from social conditions to biology can be understood. The social and spatial epidemiology unit builds on its connection with the Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Health and Society Scholars Program. The RWJ program facilitates interdisciplinary collaborations between the biological and social sciences and has dramatically increased contacts between researchers at the Mailman School of Public Health and those elsewhere across multiple disciplines. Students benefit from close ties to the Departments of Sociology and Psychology and the School of Social Work. 

Selected Projects

Emerging Health Disparities

Examining the intersection and mutual influence of socioeconomic status, cognitive ability, and health itself over the lifecourse, this study funded by the National Institute for Children’s Health and Development, brings together a broad interdisciplinary group from across CUMC to assess health outcomes in depression, lung function, obesity, and other indicators of health.

Stigma Associated With a ‘High-Risk’ for Psychosis

This study addresses the longitudinal trajectory of stigma among a High Risk for Psychosis (HRP) group, as well as the neurocognitive and social cognitive underpinnings of stigma perceptions in this group. We examine how these factors may adversely impact psychological, social, and developmental outcomes among HRP individuals.

Assessing the Role of Stress on Cardiovascular Health Among Puerto Rican Youth

This study examines the role of social stressors experienced during childhood and adolescence in relation to cardiovascular and metabolic risk profiles among Puerto Rican youth in New York City’s South Bronx and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The dual site design allows for the examination of the role of acculturation, cultural stress and social context as a potential modifier of the child stress and cardiovascular health association.

Black-White Health Disparities and the Depression "Paradox"

This multi-method project is seeking to help unravel the so-called paradox, by which Blacks in the U.S. exhibit lower prevalence of depressive disorders than Whites despite higher levels of physical morbidity and greater exposure to social disadvantage and stressors. Using a life-course approach, this study leverages comparisons between groups based on the critical axes of race, nativity, and socioeconomic status.

Affiliated Centers and Programs

Training Opportunities

The Social Determinants of Health Certificate within the MPH program

The Mailman School of Public Health offers a series of Certificate programs, including the Social Determinants of Health Certificate which is led by Lisa Bates (EPI) and Mark Hatzenbuehler (SMS).  The Certificate provides a strong, interdisciplinary foundation in social theory as well as the methodological tools needed for individuals interested in having an impact in this area of public health. The Social Epidemiology course taught by Lisa Bates is one of the key courses within the Certificate.

Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program

The Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Program was created in 1972 to equip pre- and postdoctoral fellows with the skills and vision needed to conceptualize, measure, and test ideas about psychiatric disorders that will advance the field in both incremental and ground-breaking ways. To fulfill this mission, we emphasize a framework for investigating the etiology, course, and consequences of mental illness that highlights the dynamic interplay of multiple levels, that is, a person (biology, psychology), in context (family, social network, neighborhood, workplace, society) through time (person and contextual change).

Unit Faculty

For more information about the social and spatial epidemiology unit contact