Post Doc Profile: Christina Kamis

Christina Kamis

Kamis will begin as an Assistant Professor at University of Illinois in Fall 2023.

What are your research interests and current research projects?
I have a few different streams within my research, with the mainstream being life course health research, specifically mental health. I’m interested in how early life trauma, adversities and relationships influence mental health as you get older. I focus on mid-life mental health, so the breadth of my interest spans from early life course experiences to folks in their fifties or so. Another stream of my research is demography, which I was first introduced to at Duke University via the Population Research Institute during graduate school. My final smaller stream centers on looking at population health and social determinants of health at the population level. Present projects at CDHA I am excited about include the REWARD project (Researching Epigenetics, Weathering, Aging & Residential Disadvantage) with PIs Kristen Malecki and Michal Engelman. The project aims to examine patterns of DNA methylation, a key epigenetic mechanism that influences gene expression during development and throughout life in response to environmental and social conditions. We are trying to determine whether and how personal and neighborhood-level disadvantages impact methylation patterns associated with accelerated biological aging and inflammation, and chronic cardiovascular and metabolic disease outcomes.

How did you first connect to your field of research?
I have always been interested in mental health. My undergraduate honors thesis actually involved survey research in the determinants of students seeking mental health care on campus. When I was in high school, I thought my interests would fall within psychology, but my first semester of my undergraduate degree I took a sociology class and was hooked. The idea of structural forces influencing our mental health and wellbeing at the population level versus just the individual felt like the puzzle pieces really falling into place for me. All the experiences you had throughout your life influence your mental health and wellbeing, and when I realized that it just really blew my mind! At Duke, I attended colloquia within the Duke University Population Research Institute (DUPRI) and listening to speakers introduced me to formal demography, and that’s how I added that stream onto my research interests.

What attracted you to UW-Madison? To CDHA?
I was on the job market, and the CDHA postdoc opportunity came up out of nowhere as an early call – I was interested and excited about the program. UW-Madison’s reputation for its strong demography and sociology programs has always been on my radar. I was interested in a lot of the directions CDHA was taking, as I wanted to get more training in contextual and neighborhood influences. I thought it was a beautiful bridge of the work I had done. I wanted to explore and train in new areas, and I had been exposed to some epigenetics work at Duke, but I thought it would be very cool to learn more. The CDHA post doc offers a great opportunity in cutting-edge research. Having Michal Engelman as the Post Doc mentor along with the REWARD project has really fulfilled what I came here to do!

What are some of the memorable and meaningful collaborations you’ve had within CDHA?
The REWARD team has been incredible. Michal Engelman is a wonderful mentor and there are so many cool projects coming out of that group. Our regular meetings involve a dedicated community of folks who hold each other accountable and allow a space to share ideas. We’ve built great relationships and present and future collaboration. It’s been a great place to have a home in the center.

In what ways has CDHA impacted your graduate career? Are there any notable experiences with CDHA you will take away with you in future academic and professional endeavors?
I hope that these collaborations continue on with those I’ve worked with at CDHA. I’m moving on to an Assistant Professor position at University of Illinois this Fall, but I know this work will continue as I’m only a Zoom call away! I’m looking forward to adding layers to the work I’ve done here in the future.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, how?
Our work with REWARD is based on the Survey of the Health of Wisconsin (SHOW). This project (1) aims to do a project focused on population-relevant issues like neighborhood disadvantage and (2) aims to focus on data replicability and availability – we’ve attempted to make all of our R scripts clean and available, so when the time for publication comes, folks can review that and replicate. This idea of replication is fairly new in sociology and is pushing to the mainstream. It’s been a great experience creating this code that can be read, understood, and replicated by others. I think that speaks to the Wisconsin Idea as it shows how our work can push boundaries and influence outside the university.

Some of your more recent work and publications relate to the COVID-19 pandemic. How did your research interest prior to the pandemic intersect with COVID-19, and how have you navigated investigating pandemic impacts as they unfold in real time?
I think COVID-19 really brought population mental health into focus. I think pre-pandemic when I introduced my work to non-population health and non-public health scholars, they were often confused why I wasn’t in psychology – it often never clicked. Now though, folks instantly respond with “oh yeah that’s a really big issue!” I think our society better understands how interventions at the population level can benefit people’s mental health. I also think the ways in which trauma can look like many different things – from a pandemic to missing school for an extended period of time- is better understood. As sociologists, we care about the health and safety of humans. Early on in the pandemic, COVID-19 was seen as impacting everyone equally; it seems so distant to think about that now, but really that was the message dominating popular discourse, that COVID-19 didn’t see race or socioeconomic status. Other researchers and I at Duke in April 2020 got together and said – “we know if it’s not showing up or emerging right now, these disparities will emerge,” so we started a project to see what data and information we could pull together in real time. We saw the disparities growing in real time, which is what we anticipated based on our previous knowledge of health disparities. This spawned the paper “Overcrowding and COVID-19 mortality across US counties: Are disparities growing over time?” which was published in 2021 examining disparities during the first year of the pandemic. We wanted to look at racial disparities at that time, but the data didn’t exist yet. We felt overcrowding was a good proxy for disadvantage in general, and that it would particularly be important as folks were stuck at home. Working with Tyson Brown (Duke University) and Patricia Homan (Florida State University), we have since been able to look at racial health disparities and COVID-19 and see how structural racism influences this, which produced our paper “Empirical evidence on structural racism as a driver of racial inequities in COVID-19 mortality” (2022). We plan to continue this work, but it can be challenging as we have to consider (1) what data is available and (2) how much can you trust that the data is valid, which is improving. Fluctuations in transmission rates around the holidays is a reminder that COVID-19 is still present and impactful, and I think it is our job as social scientists to ensure health disparities are being adequately investigated and understood.

What’s one thing you hope people who are exposed to your research will come away with?
When people are experiencing mental health symptoms, it’s the culmination of their life experiences. When someone is experiencing a happy and healthy life at the present, they may not reckon with the fact that they are at risk because of past life experiences. It can be one stressor that pushes them over the edge, because they are already operating at that higher risk. I hope people walk away from my work being aware of that risk and knowing that when symptoms creep up and appear, it is critical to seek help quickly. That stressor can look like so many different things. The more we are aware of our own risks and predispositions because of life events and histories, and know that seeking help is important early on, the better equip we will be to tackle mental health challenges as they arise.

What are some hobbies and interests that have occupied your time outside of your academic work?

I’m an avid hiker with my dog, which I’ve done my best to do here in Wisconsin with the snow and ice in mind! I’ve been getting back into oil painting and enjoying creative endeavors to relax with the cold weather.