Joanne Oh ’23 contributes to trailblazing public health research

A CA student co-authored the first article in a peer-reviewed journal to examine state-level racial disparities in COVID- 19 vaccination rates. In summer 2021, Joanne Oh ’23 interned with Michael Siegel, a professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Their rigorous statistical research demonstrates that COVID vaccination disparities across the United States correlate with measures of structural racism. The paper, published in October 2021 in the Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, recommends interventions that go beyond targeting individual behavior.

“Until she did the research, people talked about this relationship, but no one ever looked at it—Joanne actually proved it,” Siegel told CA’s Medical Club last May on campus. “Her research shows that we are framing a structural problem as an individual-level problem, because most interventions have been aimed at eliminating ‘vaccine hesitancy.”

That phrase took hold during the pandemic, Siegel explained. But describing the problem in those terms shifts blame from systems that limit access to health care onto the individuals experiencing harm.

Both researcher and advocate, Siegel routinely shares his findings with legislators. “Only if you understand structural racism as a contributor can you pinpoint an effective approach to reducing racial disparities,” he said at CA. “Joanne’s research made a difference. It’s an amazing accomplishment.”

Joanne participated remotely in Siegel’s research, analyzing data collected state by state. The other team members were graduate students already trained in writing scientific papers. “It was a bit intimidating at first, especially on Zoom,  Joanne says, “but I was really glad I had that experience of breaking out of my shell, challenging myself, and asking questions— even the ones that felt obvious or dumb. It helped me grow.”

She enjoyed it so much that in June 2022, she collected additional data. Building on their previous research, Siegel’s team has now assembled a structural racism index—tracking incarceration, educational attainment, racial segregation, employment, and economic status—for every U.S. state, county, and city. Joanne was in charge of the incarceration index, and she has co-authored a new paper that will soon be published.

“It’s really important to have this data out there,” she says. “Now other teams can use it to research any other health disparities to more effectively promote health policies at all levels, especially locally—that’s where a lot of policies are made.”

Joanne says joining a research team was “eye-opening.” If she could give her earlier self advice, “it would be that I’ll learn, and next time, I’ll be a better researcher,” she says. “That mindset really helped me this year.”

This fall, the Medical Club, which Joanne co-heads, began supporting COVID vaccination drives in Metro Boston areas with low vaccination rates. They set up raffles to encourage people to get vaccinated.

Prior to her research experience, Joanne’s medical interests were clinical. Now she’s less certain about that path. “What I know for sure right now,” she says, “is that I’m really interested in public health.”


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