Margaret Hicken

Research Assistant Professor, Survey Research Center, and Faculty Associate, Population Studies Center, Institute for Social Research and Research Investigator, Internal Medicine, Medical School

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Broadly speaking, I examine the ways in which social forces link racial group membership to the risk of poor health, particularly those conditions related to cardiovascular and renal diseases. In the US, despite tremendous resources devoted to the elimination of health inequalities, evidence suggests that they are growing. I would argue that our inability to eliminate (or even reduce) these inequalities is due to a lack of truly interdisciplinary approaches. Throughout my research program, I ground my approach to the study of race in the social sciences while integrating the biological sciences to ensure that the mechanisms I examine are both socially- and biologically-plausible. Under this broad umbrella of social determinants of health inequalities, I maintain two distinct research themes.

Research Theme 1: Vigilance. Within the first research theme, I draw from traditions in sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology to study the notion of “racism-related vigilance” or “vigilant coping style” and its relation to the health of Black Americans. Many hypothesize that stress plays an important role in health inequalities.  However, the empirical literature is remarkably small with mixed results.  I would argue that this is because we have not adequately conceptualized the types of social stress that are salient to Black Americans.  Ethnographers and qualitative sociologists have long-documented thoughts and behaviors of their Black study participants in which they mentally prepare to negotiate social spaces in American society.  Psychologists argue that this type of anticipatory and ruminative stress – or vigilance – is particularly toxic for health.

Research Theme 2: Social & Physical Environment. In my second research program, I examine the social and physical environment as drivers of racial health inequalities. My earlier work focused on the intersection of social adversity and environmental toxicants, supporting the notion that social adversity increases vulnerability to the health effects of environmental hazards. Over the past two years, I have begun to focus more on residential neighborhoods, particularly on racial segregation, as drivers of the racial health inequalities. Furthermore, I integrate social science information on segregation and neighborhood characteristics with biomedical information on genetics and molecular pathways that may link the social exposures to disease risk. Specifically, I examine gene-environment interactions that may drive racial inequalities in kidney disease, through the differences in gene expression of inflammation pathways, hypothesizing that inequities in neighborhood characteristics enhance genetic risk to result in disease inequalities.

Funded Research