Alumni Profiles: Doctoral

Melissa Boone

What was the topic of your dissertation?

I wrote my dissertation on the relationship between internalized homophobia, depression, and drug use in Black gay and bisexual men. I was looking to examine whether internalized homophobia put Black gay and bisexual men at risk for drug use through depressed mood.

What have been your professional activities since then?

After finishing up at Mailman, I completed one year of a postdoctoral fellowship in the Prevention and Methodology Training program at Pennsylvania State University; I worked with Stephanie Lanza and David Almeida in applying innovative, advanced statistical methods to understanding drug abuse and HIV risk in vulnerable populations. I turned my dissertation work into some scientific journal articles I published in AIDS and Behavior. I also continued some work with Marni Sommer on girls' menstrual hygiene practices and knowledge in East Africa that I had begun when I was still at Columbia. After my postdoctoral fellowship, I moved into a position as a user researcher at Microsoft Studios User Research, where I use my doctoral training to provide insights for developing video games and other interactive media at Xbox. Right now, I'm working on multiple initiatives dedicated towards increasing the reach and diversity of our experiences.

How have you used your training in SMS to transition into your current work?

The number one thing that my doctoral training at SMS has taught me is how to be a good  scientist and researcher. Those scientific skills are what I take into my work every day - creating a plan for long-term research projects; asking well-defined research questions;  designing valid research studies aimed at answering those questions; and translating those  results into insights and interventions. The difference now is that the interventions I design  are applied recommendations for improving a specific product, but the principles are very much the same. The applied nature of SMS has been really helpful; as an SMS doctoral student, I was always encouraged to think about how my findings would have significance to the populations I was studying. That education has been tremendously helpful on keeping me focused on the big picture - I'm always thinking about how the research I'm  doing can be translated directly into improvements to the product I'm working on, and  thus improve the experiences for the people who play our games and consume our media every day. The strong methodological training I received in SMS has also been really important, especially the mixed-methods research training. Knowing how to do both strong qualitative and quantitative research has been vital in my role as a researcher at Microsoft, because we use both kinds of research and triangulate between them regularly.

How has the "SMS lens" (seeing public health as embedded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts) influenced your professional attitudes and approaches towards addressing issues in your work?

It's actually a really huge part of my work! The SMS lens has pervaded the way I think and do research in many domains, and it's no different here at Microsoft. Much of my work involves interacting with development teams and helping them define the audiences for our games and media; my SMS lens helps me have high-level conversations with these teams about how the  elements of the products designing will influence their audiences in different ways based  on many factors. We're strongly dedicated to improving the diversity of our player base and making sure that our games are for everyone, and my background means that I have been able to contribute meaningfully to that work. I've also used that lens directly to improve our research processes in order to increase the diversity of our participant samples. It's excellent to be in a place that values so much the sociocultural research lens that SMS has lent me. 

Sara Shoener

What were the topics of your thesis and dissertation?

My thesis was about the different ways we have defined the success of interventions for intimate partner violence survivors. What I learned was that professionals -- researchers, advocates, and practitioners -- tended to define success in terms of very concrete outcomes, such as reduced recidivism, increased physical wellbeing, and improved mental health. Survivors themselves, on the other hand, were more likely to evaluate programs in relation to process. Did they feel as though they had control over decisions that were being made? Was their expertise considered in the plans to help them get safe? It was a good reminder that this work is not about me, and that the people whose lives will be affected by the policies and programs we create need to be involved in every step along the way.

For my dissertation, I spent time in three communities in the U.S. trying to understand the public resources and policies that helped intimate partner violence survivors reduce the violence in their lives and the lives of their children. Public resources for survivors grow by the day -- from protection order courts and dedicated domestic violence units in police precincts to community-based emergency shelters and counseling services. But, we still don’t have a good understanding of which resources actually work to reduce violence and help survivors lead the lives they would like to live. In my dissertation research, I spent a lot of time observing services such as court procedures, public benefits processes, and community-based programs. I also conducted in-depth interviews with dozens of survivors and practitioners along the way. What I learned is that our current institutional responses to intimate partner violence are often not useful – and sometimes quite harmful – to survivors with the least material, social, and cultural capital to spare.

What have been your professional activities since then?

So far, I have been working for New York City government the entire time. I worked for the Human Resources Administration (now the Department of Social Services) as the Director of Research and Planning in the division that focuses on services for intimate partner violence survivors. I got to build a tracking and evaluation system for City-funded community-based services, so that we can have a better sense of who is being served, what services they received, and how they’re doing over time. It was very fun work. 

Now I’m at the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, where I’m the Senior Research Supervisor. I oversee a portfolio of research projects that range from evaluations of anti-gun violence initiatives, to a study of the relationship between the built environment and violent crime in public housing campuses, to an assessment of the factors that shape New York City residents’ trust and confidence in the criminal justice system.

I am also excited to report that with the support of my dissertation advisor, Jennifer Hirsch, I was lucky enough to turn my dissertation into a book. The Price of Safety will be coming out in the fall of 2016.

How has the “SMS lens” (seeing public health as embedded in particular social, cultural, economic, and political contexts) influenced your professional attitudes and approaches to addressing public health issues?

My time at SMS underscored the fact that addressing violence at the individual-level is not sustainable. We might be able to point to alcohol abuse, or anger management, or past victimization as a very proximal cause of violence for specific people, but these factors do not get at the roots of the problem. As a result, interventions that address these personal factors rarely generate positive effects for those who don’t have access relevant resources.

Instead, when we try to change the structural causes of violence -- such as poverty, racism, and patriarchal institutions -- we can start to see lasting, widespread, meaningful social change.