I see inherent unfairness in the fact that the neighborhood you’re born in, or the color of your skin, or how much money your parents have, are so consequential—not just for where you end up, but the opportunities you have to get anywhere else.
Brent Langellier has always been a stickler when it comes to social justice. It has taken many forms in his life, from providing food and water to deported immigrants in Mexican border towns in Arizona to majoring in Latin American Studies to researching health disparities among racial and ethnic minorities.
Connecting Social Justice to Health Equity
While studying Spanish Literature and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, Brent became interested in social justice issues and fundamental human rights, especially among Latino populations. During that time, he volunteered for a local NGO that provided aid to deported immigrants.
“For me, there’s always been a disconnect between the prevailing narrative saying that America is the land of opportunity and this idea that people can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” he explains. “What this narrative doesn’t account for is that not everyone has the same bootstraps. Some people don’t even have the boots.”
Further education in Latin American Studies sparked an interest in health issues affecting this community, which led Brent to pursue a PhD in Community Health Sciences at UCLA. He recently was drawn to Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health as an assistant professor, largely because of its depth in issues of human rights and health disparities.
Disentangling Obesity Factors in Underserved Populations
“Obesity is probably the biggest public health issue that we face today, particularly among low-income, Latino, and African-American populations,” Brent comments. “As researchers, we need to disentangle all the social and environmental factors that influence what people eat.”
Brent’s 2014 New Connections grant gave him the tools to start unraveling this complex relationship. Specifically, he started using agent-based modeling, an approach that both examines complex systems that shape health behaviors and simulates the effects of public health laws and policies. While the tool has been used to success in other fields, including ecology and systems engineering, it has only been used within a public health context in the last five years.
What this looks like in practice is that Brent can incorporate health data from health and nutrition surveys about what people eat and other health outcomes into computer simulations to predict what might happen in certain scenarios. These scenarios could range from putting a supermarket in a neighborhood to reducing the cost of bus fare in an area to improving the quality of food served at a local school.
Brent sees great potential in agent-based modeling.
“Before embarking on expensive and arduous large-scale interventions, we’re able to first simulate them and narrow down which interventions and policies have the most promise,” he states.
From Disentangling to Driving Change
Brent wants to take agent-based modeling one step further. Specifically, he wants to take simulation beyond national data and to the local level.
“If we integrate simulation models with information we glean from local health departments, organizations, and policymakers, then we can really pinpoint which of the policies under consideration would be effective within local contexts,” Brent affirms. “The impact on low-income and minority populations could be enormous.”
Brent attributes his successes with simulation to his New Connections grant, which made it possible for him to learn this new skillset and put it into practice. The grant has opened doors for him to publish several papers on the topic, as well as become involved in other health disparities research at Drexel.
Title: Assistant Professor, Health Management and Policy, Dornsife School of Public Health, Drexel University
New Connections Year: 2014
New Connections Status: Past Grantee
- Langellier, B. A. (2016). An agent-based simulation of persistent inequalities in health behavior: Understanding the interdependent roles of segregation, clustering, and social influence. SSM – Population Health. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352827316301112
- Langellier, B. A., & Massey, P. M. (2016). Nutrition activation and dietary intake disparities among US adults. Public Health Nutrition, 19(17), 3123–3134. Available online at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/public-health-nutrition/article/nutrition-activation-and-dietary-intake-disparities-among-us-adults/B57E0448C89AF04585F85A2C9B1BF228
- Purtle, J., Langellier, B. A., & Lê-Scherban, F. A case study of the Philadelphia sugar-sweetened beverage tax policymaking process: Implications for policy development and advocacy. Accepted by Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.