Faculty Spotlight: Welcome Dr. Cynthia Levine
Recently we had a chance to sit down and interview one of our newest faculty members, Dr. Cynthia Levine, who is an Assistant Professor in the area of Social and Personality. She joined the psychology department in the winter of 2019.
How did you become interested in the field of psychology and more specifically in social and health psychology?
I took my first psychology class in college, partly to fulfill a requirement, and I was hooked! I loved being able to study the psychological phenomena that I was observing around me. My first experiences with research as an undergraduate were fantastic, and I decided to go to graduate school in social psychology. My research in graduate school focused on a number of questions related to stereotyping, prejudice, diversity, and culture. Towards the end of graduate school, I also became involved in some research looking at health outcomes, and I decided I wanted to learn more, so I went on to do a postdoc in a health psychology lab. Now my research combines both approaches.
2) What draws you to your work? Why are you passionate about it?
My lab’s research focuses on the social and psychological experiences which are linked to better health outcomes among people from diverse backgrounds. I’m especially interested in thinking about how to leverage this knowledge to improve the health of people from lower status or stigmatized groups and to reduce disparities in risk for cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases of aging. I have a longstanding interest in inequality based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, and other identities, and I’m passionate about understanding more about the social psychological sources of health disparities and, ultimately, how to foster more equality.
3) Why is your lab’s research important? Why should the community care?
As I noted above, my research focuses on understanding the social psychological factors that promote health among people from diverse backgrounds and on reducing health disparities. Health is an important outcome in its own right, and it also has implications for a number of other domains. For instance, poor health can affect people’s ability to attend school or work or actively engage with their communities. Thus, my work is relevant to anyone interested in promoting health and well-being in society and in promoting more equitable outcomes in many different domains.
4) Your recent work published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that students of color have better health when they attend schools that emphasize the value of diversity. What type of health disparities occur in less diverse school climates and how might your work inform public health and policy on the value of diverse school climates?
There are racial disparities in who develops many chronic diseases of aging. For example, relative to Whites, African Americans are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and Latino/as are more likely to develop diabetes. Risk factors for some of these diseases begin to develop in adolescence. In our sample, adolescents of color who attended schools that did not have a culture of emphasizing the value of diversity had higher levels of metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and inflammation, which are all markers that indicate risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes later on in life. However, in schools with a more inclusive climate around diversity, students of color have levels of these markers that indicate lower risk. Specifically, in schools whose mission statements explicitly mentioned valuing diversity—which we show are also schools where students of color fare better academically and are disciplined at lower rates—students of color are healthier. We’re currently doing follow up research to understand more about what is happening for students of color in these schools, but we think that there might be more faculty of color, more diverse perspectives in the curriculum, and more equitable treatment of students from different backgrounds, all of which could help students of color feel more supported and, in turn, to have better health. If that’s true, changing school environments to be more inclusive in these ways would have the potential to improve the health of adolescents of color and reduce health disparities.
Is there anything else you would like to add about your work and/or the classes that you plan to teach?
This year I taught a course on the psychology of health disparities, which focused on the social and psychological roots of health disparities based on race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, geographic location, whether one has a disability, and other identities and experiences, and on how to address some of these disparities. It was a lot of fun, and I will be teaching it again next winter. I will also be teaching an undergraduate health psychology course in the spring next year.