Apr. 12 2016

Student Research in the Limelight

Even before they graduate, students are helping shape health policy through the media, in the courtroom, and on Capitol Hill

When Sociomedical Sciences doctoral student Kathleen Bachynski picked her dissertation topic, she never imagined she’d find herself at the heart of one of the biggest debates raging in American culture: the future of football. Yet, in just the last few months, she has shared her expertise with policymakers on Capitol Hill, had a letter published in the New York Times, and spoken with concerned parents from across the country about how to make the country’s most popular sport safer for children.

Just before the Panthers and the Broncos faced off in this year’s Super Bowl, the New England Journal of Medicine published Bachynski’s peer-reviewed critique of new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) on tackling in youth football. From Bachynski’s perspective, the AAP’s guidelines didn’t go far enough to prevent concussions, including only small measures like increased adult supervision and improved protective equipment—even though the evidence the AAP cited showed that tackling leads to more injuries. 

Kathleen Bachynski“I was in the midst of writing my dissertation, and I knew I had to say something,” says Bachynski. “If the goal is to make the game safer for kids and protect them from injury, the recommendations should consider more serious options, such as taking tackling out of youth practices, like the Ivy League is now doing.” 

In addition to making a splash in the news, Bachynski’s commentary attracted the attention of advocates, like former wrestler Chris Nowinski, and the office of U.S. Senator Tom Udall. A policy advisor to Sen. Udall, who serves as lead sponsor on a bipartisan bill to push for better regulation of the often-misleading claims made by protective equipment manufacturers, consulted Bachynski on the legislation and other ways to make youth sports safer. 

“I’ve gotten a sort of trial-by-fire education on how to share my message with different audiences in different spaces,” says Bachynski. 

At Mailman, she is in good company: in recent months, several fellow students have published research that is having an impact—in the news and in policy—on controversial topics like salt warnings, traffic safety, and gun control. 

Salt Science In Court 

As the New York City Department of Health works to encourage healthier habits among New Yorkers, they have developed strategies to give people the information they need to make smart food choices, including a new requirement to warn restaurant customers about menu items with a high salt content. Yet your average customer is unaware of what science informs this warning.

David JohnsTo better understand the landscape of salt science, David Johns, doctoral student in Sociomedical Sciences, worked with Ludovic Trinquart, Columbia University Epidemiology Merit Fellow, and Sandro Galea, dean of the Boston University School of Public Health and adjunct professor of Epidemiology at the Mailman School, to analyze 25 years of published research on sodium and its effects on health. 

The team found mixed and polarized results—and they also found themselves in the middle of a heated debate being waged both in the media and in the New York state court system. The National Restaurant Association, which brought a legal suit against the city, cited the study’s findings in its argument against the need for sodium labels. 

“Our position has always been to be an observer in the debate, and we certainly didn’t intend for our paper to fuel the controversy,” says Johns. “But as it happened, the study was published right when the court case was about to be decided. It really entered the discussion at a time when it was ripe to be seized upon by participants in the legal deliberations.” 

Gun Control Research Goes Viral 

Julian Santaella-TenorioJulian Santaella-Tenorio, doctoral student in Epidemiology, had never talked to an American reporter before publishing his study, a review of 130 studies on gun control policies. But the weeks following the release of the February issue of Epidemiologic Reviews provided a crash course in media relations. Speaking to celebrated publications like The Washington Post and newcomers like Vox, Santaella-Tenorio felt a combination of excitement and anxiety as his findings went viral. 

“It’s the first time I’ve gotten such attention on my work,” says Santaella-Tenorio. “We weren’t necessarily trying to be on one side or the other; we just wanted to look at all the gun policy studies people have done. I learned a lot about how to talk to journalists and make sure our findings were portrayed fairly and in a non-biased way.”

Building Tools to Inform Public Policy

Stephen MooneyBeyond making headlines, student research is making a difference in policy— Stephen Mooney, a graduate student in Epidemiology, who recently published research on traffic safety in New York City using data from Google Street View, is in talks with city officials about the different ways to make intersections safer for pedestrians.

“We’re still in early talks, but the city’s Department of Transportation has funding through Vision Zero and other sources dedicated to making changes to dangerous intersections,” says Mooney. “What we’d really like to do is work with them to create a program to evaluate those interventions using our Street View approach.”

Students at Mailman research a wide variety of topics—and their published work is only growing in terms of influence and scope in the way we talk and think about public health issues. 

“It’s very gratifying to know that I can do something that’s intellectually stimulating and also has a real impact on people’s lives,” says Bachynski, who recently secured funding to turn her research into a book. “That’s why I got into public health in the first place.”