Uncovering the health effects of the Great Migration | News

know about Uncovering the health effects of the Great Migration | News

Cecilia Vu, PhD ’22, uses her quantitative skills to explore the health of African Americans who left the South during the 20th century.

April 6, 2022: Cecilia Vu says she got hooked on public health when she realized how powerful data can be in shedding light on people’s experiences.

The realization came about a decade ago. At the time, Vu was a student at Boston University working as a research assistant for Hyeouk Hahm of the Boston University School of Social Work, who studies mental health among Asian Americans, especially women and men. young adults. Her research, focusing on topics such as the challenges of bridging two cultures and dealing with generational tensions, struck a chord with Vu, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants. For example, she recalled feeling “embarrassed and apologetic” during a trip to Vietnam because she did not speak the language fluently. “The things we were studying were things that I was experiencing myself,” she said.

“I was fascinated by the data part of the research: the idea that stories about people could be told through data blew me away. At the time, I didn’t know you could use data in that way,” Vu said. “That got me completely hooked for life on public health.”

Vu is now on track to earn a doctorate in population health sciences with a concentration in epidemiology in May from Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health. And he’s been using the quantitative skills he learned in school to investigate the Great Migration, the migration of millions of African Americans from the South to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1910 to 1970, and its impact on outcomes. birth and mental health. health among those who emigrated. Vu looked at racial factors that might have affected immigrants’ health, such as residential segregation and experiences of everyday discrimination.

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‘An eye-opening experience’

Vu, a native of Milton, Massachusetts, who majored in American Studies at BU, flirted with the possibility of working in global health. He interned with both the International AIDS Society in Geneva and the US Agency for International Development in Washington, DC. But he kept thinking about the work he had done with Hahm on the experiences of Asian Americans. He eventually decided to return to BU for an MPH, where he focused on social epidemiology, looking at how social conditions such as economic inequality, lack of access to education, and racist policies can affect health.

After earning her degree, Vu worked as an epidemiologist for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. She evaluated reproductive health programs and called them “an eye-opening experience.” She looked at how, year after year, certain towns and communities had the highest rates of asthma, teen pregnancy, or premature death. “I learned from my colleagues to look at these trends through a racial justice lens, to see how racially unjust policies like redlining, which can determine who can live in a particular community, can influence socioeconomic background, poverty, the level of resources. in that community,” she said.

After four years, Vu decided it was time to learn more. “I wanted to really understand how I could quantify the relationship between the history of racial injustice and public health, to really show that the policies and histories of particular communities have resulted in poor health outcomes,” she said. “I knew that Harvard Chan School was the right place for that, because they have a very strong social epidemiology program.”

A lightbulb moment

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Vu landed on the research topic for his dissertation somewhat fortuitously. The topic of the impact of the Great Migration on cities came up in one of her classes. He realized that he knew very little about it, despite the fact that it was one of the largest internal migrations in the history of the United States, an exodus driven by African-Americans seeking better economic conditions and to escape racial segregation and poverty. discrimination prevalent in the South. Vu decided to read Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “The Heat of Other Suns,” which tells the story of migration through data, records, and personal stories. “It was magical and compelling,” she recalled.

Soon, in another class, the subject of the Great Migration came up again, this time in a paper by a fellow doctoral student, Ellora Derenoncourt, who is now an assistant professor of economics at Princeton University. Derenoncourt’s article detailed how some of the destination cities for those who emigrated, such as Detroit and Pittsburgh, ended up being places with some of the most limited economic opportunity for African Americans.

It was then that a lightbulb went on for a moment. “I remember thinking, ‘That relates to the book I just read,’” Vu recalled. “Then it occurred to me, after doing a brief literature review, how little we know about the Great Migration in terms of public health. He was curious: Did the African-Americans who emigrated fare better than those who stayed in the South? No one was really writing about this, so I decided to do it.”

unexpected findings

Previous research had shown an increased risk of infant and adult mortality among African Americans who immigrated from the South. Vu investigated further, examining the links between migration and low birth weight, as well as the connection between migration and mental health disorders. He surmised that those who emigrated would have been better off in terms of health, since moving would likely have provided them with greater economic and educational opportunities. But that’s not what she found. “Leaving the South did not improve health,” she said.

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For example, he found that the children of immigrants were more likely to suffer from mental health disorders compared to the children of those who stayed in the South. And they were more likely to report perceived discrimination. “Because of the known link between discrimination and mental health, I speculate that exposure to racial discrimination may have elevated lifetime rates of mental health disorders among children of immigrants,” Vu said. “That discrimination makes me think that this could also apply to their parents.”

He added: “My findings make me question racism and discrimination in the South versus the North, both past and present. During the Great Migration, one of the motivations for migrating was the desire to get out of legalized racial segregation under Jim Crow and the threat of racial violence. But racial discrimination in the North was also widespread at the time, through residential segregation and wage and hiring discrimination, for example. I think this also applies today.”

Vu hopes to continue studying racial disparities and public health. She already has a job lined up as a data science researcher at BU’s Center for Anti-Racist Research. “I’m super excited,” she said. “It will allow me to use the rich quantitative skills I have acquired at Harvard Chan School for racial equity work. The data training has been exceptional, and I’m glad I can continue to practice it in the future.”

-Karen Feldscher

photo: Kent Dayton