Date October 5, 2017
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Doctoral students selected for national program to shape health policy

Graduate students Chinyere Agbai and Arjee Restar have earned competitive national awards from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support their studies to improve health for underserved populations.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — With the selection of two Brown University graduate students, Chinyere Agbai in sociology and Arjee Restar in public health, as Health Policy Research Scholars, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will support their research and efforts to translate their findings into health policies.

Also among the 40 scholars selected from schools across the nation was Brown public health alumna Mya-Lee Roberson, now a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. With a focus on doctoral students who “bring unique and diverse perspectives to their research,” the program provides not only a stipend for up to four years but also leadership development training and opportunities to interact with policy, public health and industry leaders.

Agbai and Restar said the awards will help them achieve their goals of making an impact through research. They are each doing so in distinct ways.

Chinyere Agbai

Chinyere Agbai grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she went to church and middle school in a neighborhood with a past that illustrates how racial inequality has played out in cities around the country. A thriving African American neighborhood until the 1920s, Greenwood was burned in a race riot in 1921 and never reclaimed the prosperity it once had. That is until the last decade or so, Agbai said.

“That’s when it started to display some of the hallmarks of gentrification, such as the construction of a baseball stadium and high-end lofts and restaurants,” she said. “Though there is increasing investment in the neighborhood, it is targeted toward attracting higher-income, primarily white residents rather than investing in the black residents who have historically lived in this neighborhood.”

Now a doctoral student in sociology at Brown, Agbai is working on the first main project: her master’s thesis. It explores how gentrification in Los Angeles County may be affecting the health of incumbent residents as their communities undergo sweeping economic, and often racial, transitions. To support this project and her future work, she has earned a position in the new Health Policy Research Scholars program.

With the program’s financial and policy mentoring support, and opportunities for networking with fellow scholars in many different disciplines, Agbai will increase her ability to not only expand the sociological literature with new findings, but also to communicate the relevance of those findings to policymakers who can effect change.

“Contributing to the literature in sociology is extremely important, and I’m looking forward to doing that,” Agbai said. “But if I’m going to do this work that directly affects people today and I produce research that can help people who are harmed by living in this society, then I’d love to deliver that to policymakers in a way that is digestible and interpretable and useful.”

For her study, Agbai is analyzing data from multiple sources including the U.S. Census and a wide-ranging survey of Los Angeles County residents. She’ll also visit the areas to get a firsthand look at neighborhoods, how they are changing and how that’s affecting residents.

Agbai’s hypothesis is that gentrification may undermine the health of incumbent residents by dispersing tight-knit social support networks as many original residents can no longer afford to live in these neighborhoods. But she’s also examining potentially countervailing factors, such as whether the affluence and influence of incoming residents leads to neighborhood changes that promote health for current residents, rich or poor and regardless of race or ethnicity.

“There is literature in sociology and other social sciences that says if you have social ties in the neighborhood, this is correlated with positive health outcomes because, for instance, they provide emotional support or if you are sick they look after your children,” Agbai said. “But if they are displaced during gentrification, and you lose this sort of support network, then it’s possible that health would decline.”

The literature suggests this hypothesis, but it doesn’t provide much evidence on gentrification’s health effects. Agbai wants to find the answer.

After studying political science at the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate, Agbai said she chose Brown for her graduate studies because it has a strong focus on urban sociology, race and ethnicity, and social stratification more broadly. Since arriving in 2016, she’s been working with fellow scholars at the Population Studies and Training Center, and she looks forward to becoming more involved with the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America.

She said she has not yet decided whether the effect of gentrification on health will be the focus of her doctoral dissertation, but she is committed to doing research on behalf of people who are disadvantaged in society.

“I want to do something that’s helpful to people who are the most negatively affected by living in this racialized and classist society,” she said. 

Arjee Restar

As a Master of Public Health student in epidemiology at Columbia University, Arjee Restar served at the city health department to help advocate for HIV prevention services and legislative workplace guidelines specific to transgender and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers. When Restar graduated in 2016, she decided to continue her studies toward a Ph.D. so could she make a bigger and more lasting impact.

“There isn’t enough public health research to help inform practices and policies specific to trans individuals and gender-nonconforming people,” said Restar, now a doctoral student in the Brown University School of Public Health. “That is a main problem that public health professionals, including physicians, encounter a lot. I’m pursuing a Ph.D. so that future generations in public health can have the information to help inform policy and shape what trans health is going to look like.”

To help her not only pursue that research but use it to influence outcomes in society, Restar earned a place in the competitive Health Policy Research Scholars program to support her studies.

“A chief challenge that I face as a public health researcher is building a culture of health equity,” Restar said. “That work includes communicating and relating my work to both my colleagues in public health as well the greater public, especially to people who are in positions of great influence such as policymakers.”

Restar’s resolve to lead research that will benefit transgender communities, as she sought to do in New York, made Brown her choice for doctoral studies because she was eager to work with School of Public Health professors Don Operario and Matthew Mimiaga.

A second-year student, Restar has begun serving another community: her home country of the Philippines. The country has the fastest-growing HIV epidemic in the Asia and the Pacific region, according to the joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). This summer, with support from Brown’s Global Health Initiative, she worked in Manila, leading qualitative research to understand how the epidemic is affecting gay and transgender residents, including asking providers what can be done to improve uptake and adherence of prevention and treatment services.

She also recently received the Brown Global Mobility Program fellowship, allowing her to return next year to conduct quantitative research. 

The trip this summer was Restar’s first time back in the Philippines since coming to the U.S. She brought back skills as a researcher with substantial practical experience in studying the HIV epidemic.

And her efforts to help shape the health of transgender people are fully underway.

“With this fellowship, I aim to gain understanding of the optimal ways to influence policymakers with recommendations that are grounded in science, and to include trans individuals and gender-nonconforming people within their policies,” Restar said.