Hedy Lee, professor of sociology, studies the social determinants of population health and health disparities in the United States. She sat down with The Ampersand as part of our series highlighting faculty that joined Arts & Sciences this academic year.
What are one or two things that made you excited to join the faculty at Washington University?
I was really excited to be part of building a new department. You don't often get a chance to do something like this, and it was exciting to be in a place that's supporting the work of sociologists and working to create something new and different that's going to serve the needs of the community — the university community, the students, graduate students, as well as the larger St. Louis community.
A second reason is that the faculty in our department are so amazing. We all study different dimensions of inequality, and that's really important to me in the work that I do. It's nice to be around a group of people that are really committed to the exercise of not just researching inequality, but also being public sociologists who are talking about the sources and consequences of inequality to the public and actually working to find solutions to the problems. It's exciting and unique for a sociology department.
Within the study of inequality, you focus on health disparities. When did you first become interested in that topic?
I became interested in health when I was a graduate student. I was part of a population center that does a lot of interdisciplinary work, and there was a person presenting work around obesity, talking about the determinants of obesity with a focus on health behaviors. I'm really interested in the social origins of those behaviors. Why do certain people have different choices in terms of the food they can eat or the places they can exercise? So, my dissertation was really around trying to understand why poverty and obesity are linked — we know that poverty is a risk factor for obesity at all stages of the life course. So that was sort of my entree into studying health.
In recent years there has been quite a bit of publicity regarding health disparities in St. Louis, such as the For the Sake of All project coming out of the Brown School here at WashU. Are you interested in this region in particular?
Most of my earlier work has focused on using national data sets to study health. I would identify as both a sociologist and demographer, so social demographer. I use a lot of nationally representative data sets to understand the ways in which structures create chronic stress that lead to poor health outcomes. I'm particularly interested right now on the impacts of family member incarceration on health. Incarceration definitely impacts people who are experiencing incarceration, but family members are also negatively impacted by incarceration in multiple ways. You lose a family member — that's already emotionally taxing — but then there's also the money that goes into staying in contact; paying for fines and fees; going to visit; and then the additional labor that oftentimes women are taking on in terms of dealing with the children who are also often left behind. That has led me to do some qualitative work interviewing women who have incarcerated family members.
I've done that work in Florida and in Washington state, and now I'm hoping to do it locally, as well. I've actually received funding from the Weidenbaum Center to interview women in Missouri, focusing on St. Louis County in particular, who have incarcerated family members —trying to understand their experiences and how that might impact health. That will be part of a larger book project that I'm working on. I also have an affiliation with the Brown School and I am excited to work with faculty there to better understand the nature of health disparities in St. Louis and come up with strategies that can help to eliminate them.
Last semester you began your WashU teaching career with a class called "Sick Society." Were there any topics or experiences that stood out for you in teaching that class?
I have to say that it was amazing — the students at WashU are absolutely fantastic. They are wicked smart and so energized to learn. Some of the conversations that we had that I think were most interesting were around the role that place plays on health, with studies showing that even if you live just a few miles from another person you might have a completely different health profile based on the resources in the places that you live. Oftentimes, we tend to think about health behaviors as the driver of all differences in health, which do matter for health outcomes. But health behaviors don't just come out of nowhere. There are structures where you live — in terms of access to grocery stores, whether you can go outside and work out, and the kinds of jobs you have — that can really impact your lifestyle and your health. Not to mention just the chronic stress of day-to-day life, especially if you're living in areas that might be over-policed, for example. Health really is about where you live, learn, work and play. Those ideas led to a lot of lively discussions.
You mentioned being excited about coming to a place where scholars are also public sociologists. Are you personally interested in getting involved with public policy or finding other solutions to social problems?
I think it's something I'm still trying to figure out. It's not something we're necessarily trained to do as sociologists, but it is something that I'm passionate about, and there are different ways to contribute. I’ve worked alongside the Scholars Strategy Network, which is this great national network that brings scholars together across the country who are interested in their work informing policy and practice. We write briefs, and we also contribute to policy discussions when they might matter for different outcomes. With that group, I have done a fair share of work talking to, if not policymakers themselves, the staff of local policymakers, and trying to inform them around policies that might impact families who have incarcerated parents. I also work a lot with the Vera Institute for Justice and theInterdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science in that way. I definitely think scholars need to take an active role, especially in their local communities. It is a responsibility we all need to take seriously. The way that we actually operationalize that responsibility differs, and I respect all the ways scholars do it.