John Pamplin II is a Smart Cities Postdoctoral Associate at CUSP, as well as an Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow under the office of the Provost. He received his PhD in Epidemiology in 2020 from the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, where he was a predoctoral fellow on a Psychiatric Epidemiology Training Grant, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Previously, John earned an MPH in Epidemiology and a certificate in the study of Social Determinants of Health from Columbia University. John has also worked as a behavioral neuroscientist, studying circadian rhythms and neuroendocrinology after earning his BS in Biology from Morehouse College.
His current research focuses on studying racism in its many manifestations, especially within the context of societal and institutional structures (such as laws, policies, and social stratification), with the goal of understanding and documenting its implications for the mental health of racially minoritized communities. John was originally drawn to this work when he first learned to question the narratives he came across as a young kid that Black people’s worse health- across numerous outcomes- could all be attributed to genetic differences.
“My dedication to this work grew alongside my frustration as I witnessed this narrative continue to be widely propagated, despite mounting contradictory genetic evidence,” he says.
The most challenging part of John’s work is thinking of creative ways to empirically capture the exposures he is interested in. “Racism is not only defined by the underlying intent, but also its outcome, so a lot of my work is focused on capturing exposures that are systematically experienced differently by different racial groups,” he says.
“However, finding quality data that validly represents variation in my exposure, gaining access to it, and then findings ways to link it to health outcome data is always challenging. That said, it is incredibly rewarding being able to ask and answer questions about factors impacting my community, that for too long, have been overlooked.”
John was originally attracted to CUSP by the opportunity to collaborate with investigators from different disciplinary backgrounds, with whom he shares many common goals. He saw joining NYU not only as a great opportunity to make a real-world impact with his work, but also a way to learn new skills and stretch himself as a scientist.
How does his work relate to CUSP’s mission of helping cities become more productive, livable, equitable, and resilient? “My research interests boil down to equity, and for me, that starts with health. No city can truly maximize things like productivity and quality of life, unless its residents are healthy,” he says.
“Documenting the inequitable impact of policies is the first step towards developing and implementing proper interventions. If we have learned anything over this country’s 400-year history, it is that equity does not occur by happenstance; it has to be intentionally sought after!”
While his doctoral program work focused on documenting and interrogating racial patterns in psychopathology, driven by the hypothesis that exposure to racism should manifest in terms of worse mental health for populations of color, his research at NYU has taken a new direction. John is now focused on assessing the consequences of specific racialized exposures, specifically, policing and criminal justice policies, as well as laws regarding drug use and their enforcement.
Although John has been working from home like many during the pandemic, his days at CUSP have been extremely varied so far, working with multiple researcher groups and faculty members across the NYU community. “Some days I get to discuss the application of novel methods for discovering heterogeneity with members of the Machine Learning for Good lab. Other days, I am working with my collaborators at the Center for Opioid Epidemiology Policy on projects to assess the impact of laws and policies intended to address the opioid epidemic.”
What advice does he have for students or researchers just starting out in his field? “Academic careers in epidemiology (like most disciplines) are not straight forward and the ‘tricks of the trade’ are not common knowledge if you were not privileged to have other academics in your family,” he says.
“All of my successes up to this point have been the result of incredible guidance and mentorship, but most of those mentors didn’t fall into my lap; I had to reach out. My advice would be to not be afraid to send some emails. Figure out some people who are in positions that you would like to one day be in, read up on their current work, make a list of questions, and reach out. Worst case scenario, they don’t respond, but maybe they do! A wise person once said, ‘you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’”