Scholar Story: Caryn Bell, PhD

I want what I do to inform social justice efforts to address those social and cultural issues that lead to disparate outcomes.

As a public health-trained professor in the African American Studies department of the University of Maryland, College Park, Caryn Bell has always been attuned to social justice issues at the intersection of race and public health.

“In public health we have always included race as a variable, but being in African American studies has allowed me to take a deep dive into culture, social issues, social justice issues, discrimination, and segregation,” Caryn says.

Growing up in Raleigh, NC, Caryn noticed the socio-economic and health disparities between white and black people. Attending one of the state’s top public schools, she noticed how race affected graduation rates, and within her family, she saw how race can affect health behaviors, treatment decisions, and interactions with the healthcare system.

In college, Caryn initially studied chemistry, but she realized she wanted to focus her research on health, race and social justice. “I wanted my research to be more directly impactful,” she said. “I wanted to see more of the effects of my research. I want what I do to inform social justice efforts to address those social and cultural issues that lead to disparate outcomes.”

Following graduation, she worked as a research assistant at the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions and went on to earn a PhD in social and behavioral sciences. Now, as a professor, researcher, and member of the 2017 New Connections cohort, Caryn focuses on African American health, particularly higher socio-economic status African Americans who still have poorer health outcomes than their white peers.

Caryn says research often focuses on health in urban and low socio-economic status communities, sometimes conflating socio-economic status and place with race. While those communities often have worse health outcomes, African Americans who live in suburban communities and have college degrees may have lower health outcomes than those of whites with the same socio-economic status.

A study comparing affluent white and African American people found that the African American respondents had higher odds of developing hypertension, mental health issues, and obesity.

While Caryn says understanding why African Americans have poorer health outcomes than their white peers is important, she wants to do more with her research.

“For me, it’s just not enough to understand. I want whatever I do to contribute to coming up with solutions to achieve the best health for African Americans across the socio-economic spectrum, but particularly for higher socio-economic status African Americans who may have been overlooked by researchers and policy makers,” Caryn says.

As part of her New Connections grant, Caryn is researching health outcomes for African Americans in the suburbs, which is an understudied population.

“We think that if we’ve made it to the suburbs, we’ve made it in general. That’s not always the case. I’m looking at the suburbanization of poverty—how gentrification and displacement from urban areas has led to poverty in the suburbs,” Caryn said, adding that suburban African Americans are often segregated, living in less affluent areas outside city limits.

of concentrated suburban poverty. In Hempstead, which is 92 percent black and Latino, the median income is $52,000, but in mostly white Garden City the median income is $150,000. Even in the suburbs, place affects health, Caryn says. Living in pockets of concentrated poverty can affect health outcomes, such as obesity rates.

Her New Connections study is longitudinal, looking at how changes in demographics over time affect health outcomes in U.S. counties and considers the role of race and place along with urbanization.

“In the long term, I want my work to inform interventions, social policy, and social justice efforts. I would love for it to inform social justice efforts to not only improve health, but to address the social determinants that lead to disparate health outcomes for higher socio-economic status African Americans.”

Caryn’s commitment to social justice is evident through her research, and she says New Connections has helped encourage her to push her research beyond journals. “During the winter [2018] symposium, I connected with people doing similar research and having similar experiences—how do we get tenure, how do we deal with pressures? It was helpful to connect with other researchers about the difficulty of pushing research forward and having an impact.”