The lone scientist problem, and how two Carolina professors are addressing it

Two Carolina professors are combining their distinct areas of expertise to help students address some of the toughest health issues of our time.

Professor Hummer speaks to students gathered around a table
Robert Hummer, a Howard W. Odum Distinguished Professor of Sociology and fellow at the Carolina Population Center, teaches a course on how to integrate the social and biological sciences on November 12, 2018, on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Good science is a team sport — especially when it comes to addressing health disparities.

That’s the foundation of a new UNC-Chapel Hill research training program that challenges students to explore both the biological and social factors that influence health in the United States.

Led by sociologist Robert Hummer and epidemiologist Allison Aiello, the Biosocial Training Program funds seven graduate and post-doctoral students this year as they study some of the most pressing health issues of our time. The program, funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is housed in the Carolina Population Center.

“This kind of work can’t just be done by a single person,” Hummer said. “People can’t sit under trees and think big thoughts and produce great science. That’s not how it works anymore. You have to have training across disciplines.”

Hummer and Aiello are interested in combining their areas of expertise to understand how social factors like poverty “get under the skin” to reduce immune functioning and influence overall health. The training, they hope, will create a new kind of scientist: the integrated scientist.

“We’re starting early with interdisciplinary training, bringing together the best of sociology and the most innovative work that’s being done on the biological side so that our students are able to learn each other’s languages and build these bridges early on as part of their own research,” Aiello said.

The program’s seven trainees are also part of a broader class taught by Aiello and Hummer about integrated science, covering everything from gender and race to genetics and immunology.

“A sociology student might get their theory, their methods, their substantive work, and along the way they realize that’s not enough,” Hummer said. “That’s not enough to do what we really want to do. And the same thing for the students coming from biological and health sciences. They need cross-training.”

As the trainees pursue cross-training, they have access to experts in many disciplines, including geographers, anthropologists, geneticists and maternal and child health experts.

Rae Anne Martinez, an epidemiology graduate student in the training program, is taking advantage of that network to explore how trauma and stress in early childhood can affect children’s cognitive development. Martinez hopes to uncover some of the invisible social factors, such as exposure to household violence, that might influence brain health.

“A sociology professor told us this semester, ‘You can’t study what you can’t see,’” Martinez said. “I think sociological theory allows us as public health researchers to see something from a new vantage point and unblinds us to details or forces we may have missed.”

The Biosocial Training Program, Martinez said, has been the solution to combining her interests in biology and sociology — a struggle she encountered as an undergraduate in Arizona.

“It was rather frustrating and involved a lot of fumbling around in the dark because, at that time, I couldn’t find any faculty doing explicitly biosocial research. There certainly wasn’t a degree or training program,” she said. “This grant offers something that I have been looking for for a long time – support, structure, and community in biosocial research.”

Both Aiello and Hummer believe their students will soon be equipped to find innovative solutions to critical health problems that have yet to be solved.

“It’s extremely rewarding seeing our trainees get the kind of training that they have wanted to have in their academic careers to address problems at multiple levels,” Aiello said. “An ideal outcome would be that they go on to address some of these really complex problems, break down the walls that exist and launch really new, innovative areas of research.”