Trainee Profile: PhD Student Julia Goodwin

Julia Goodwin

Cabin John, MD

Undergraduate education/other graduate degrees
BA, University of Wisconsin–Madison, sociology/CAR; certificate in education policy studies

Expected graduation date

Research interests? Current research projects?
My research interests are around how social environments throughout the life course influence health disparities by race and/or SES. Currently, my research on health disparities looks at the relationship between race and social mobility, and subsequent health outcomes. Social mobility, such as achieving more years of education, is seen as an obtainable and desirable outcome, and may lead to attenuated disparities in income, employment, and health. However, in terms of health outcomes, research has found that people of color who are upwardly mobile are at greater risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disease compared to their counterparts who were not upwardly mobile. This is not to say that people should not aspire to achieve more education than their parents, but that institutions, like higher education, are places that were created and are perpetuated by white, wealthy elites, and are thus places that are hostile toward those who are non-white or not wealthy. I find this interaction fascinating and I’m currently investigating whether people who experience changes in neighborhood characteristics from childhood to adulthood—an indicator of social mobility—have similar risks of chronic disease as those who are upwardly mobile through achieving higher education and gainful employment.

What sparked your interest in health and aging issues?
The availability of large, nationally representative longitudinal surveys allow researchers to investigate how changes in social contexts and environments can affect health trajectories, beginning in childhood and looking into later life. I find that looking at people’s health in this way makes for much richer demographic research.

Why did you choose your field of graduate study
I started my college career as a biology major—I was always fascinated by the complexity of molecular interactions in the human body. However, after taking an introductory sociology course, I found that much like the interactions between molecules, chemicals, and cells, I was interested in how humans interact with one another—how we coexist, repel, reproduce, age, and parish. I could think of sociology as biology on a much larger scale.

While an IRTA at NIH and seeing speakers who researched the intersection of the social and biological sciences, I saw a research career path that would allow me to combine my interests in biology and sociology. I remember first learning about epigenetics, or how genes can be up- or downregulated through molecular mechanisms. Social environments and institutions can effect one’s biology through stress pathways and affect gene expression, leading to increased risk of metabolic and cardiovascular disease. This made very clear that the social world, not an individual’s biology, is the pathway to understanding health disparities.

What’s new and exciting about your research?
Combining health disparities research, social mobility research, and neighborhood context research is a novel endeavor. Measurements of neighborhood quality are a more direct measure of the social environment. Whether a person who lives in a higher quality neighborhood in adulthood compared to childhood may be related to higher or lower risk for chronic illness later in life. Researching social mobility is very relevant in today’s social, political, and economic climate. Many young people have the expectation of moving upward, but there may be a small, but significant cost for people of color. Understanding how social mobility and neighborhood contexts affect stress and subsequent health risks are important for narrowing health disparities.