'Data Nerd' to Change Agent
Melissa Juliana DuPont-Reyes, PhD ’17, is a Jersey girl, born and raised. When it came to her educational trajectory, however, her multiethnic immigrant roots had a powerful influence. “Being good at math and science, I thought I’d have to be a medical doctor or engineer,” says the assistant professor of sociomedical sciences, who credits an undergraduate elective in epidemiology for tapping her passion for public health. “I’m a huge data nerd,” she says. “I love applying data to research questions and seeing how the tests unfold.”
DuPont-Reyes graduated from college in 2008, at the nadir of the Great Recession. She moved home, enrolled in a night program to earn her MPH, and worked days as a substitute teacher and as a store clerk at her grandma’s shop. For her practicum, DuPont-Reyes landed a placement with the Columbia Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence. Not only did the gig yield a full-time job at Columbia Mailman School, it set the stage for her PhD studies in epidemiology and a dissertation investigating the effect of school racial and ethnic demographics on student mental health. DuPont-Reyes returned to Columbia Mailman in 2022 with a primary appointment in sociomedical sciences and a secondary appointment in epidemiology.
Q. You spent five years at a university in Texas. What brought you back to Columbia?
DuPont-Reyes: I received an award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a project exploring mental health stigma in Spanish-language media. It was a tough decision deciding to move. But having been at Columbia for my PhD, I knew the people at Columbia would help to enrich the work I wanted to do. Additionally, at the Mailman School, my primary appointment is with the Department of Sociomedical Sciences. The department’s interdisciplinary approach and emphasis on social science is a better fit for the work I’m doing.
Q. Why investigate mental health stigma in Spanish-language media?
DuPont-Reyes: I’ve been tracking this issue for a few years. People know that there is mental health stigma in how the media talks about behaviors and attitudes. However, that entire body of literature has excluded Spanish-language and new media tailored to Latino audiences. Think of TikTok, for example. Media is always evolving, emerging, but the research in this area is 25 years old and so inequitable.
Q. What have you learned, so far?
DuPont-Reyes: In 2022 the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published my analyses of advertising on Spanish-language and English-language TV channels owned by the same company. That study showed clear inequities across the two channels—that’s an unchecked media company decision. For example, alcohol is disproportionately advertised to Spanish-language audiences.
Q. What do you hope your work can achieve?
DuPont-Reyes: I want to develop a media campaign to disseminate to diverse audiences including Latino communities that busts mental health stigma and supports help-seeking and access to resources. I’m thinking of it as a multi-pronged approach. In the case of alcohol advertisements, for example, we need regulation and leadership in government—like with tobacco, where advertisement is regulated. This also opens space for public service announcements. It’s also a corporate responsibility issue—media executives are deciding what they’re willing to advertise.
Q. Reporters have called you a “health disparities” researcher. How do you describe your work?
DuPont-Reyes: Disparities is just another way of talking about differences, and some population differences are justified. For example, we would expect differences in osteoporosis between youth and older adults because bone density changes with age, so these differences make sense. I’m a mental health equity researcher. I think about more equitable policies, programs and practices to eliminate inequities. Inequities are unjust disparities due to the policies, programs, and practices that create them. I try to focus on the equity piece—identifying inequities and solutions to create equity. If I were just focused on disparities, I wouldn’t also be thinking about what can we change in pursuit of a more equitable future.
Q. What courses are you developing at the Mailman School?
DuPont-Reyes: We’re in the process of restructuring the curriculum so that students first get a course that combines introductory quantitative and qualitative methods and later take a second, applied course for hands-on skills development in one of those methods. I’m developing the applied quantitative course. I’m excited to combine advanced quantitative research skills from my epidemiological training with research guided by social science theory. I’m also developing a course in community mental health with the School of Social Work to discuss how community-based interventions can address mental health equity.