Human health may be affected by a variety of factors, such as diet and toxic substances. According to Chandra Jackson, Ph.D., the definition of environment should also include the social circumstances in which people live, work, play, and worship. She said social factors, including poor living and working conditions, as well as experiences of racial discrimination, can affect sleep and contribute to increased risk of obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The newest member of the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch, Jackson studies how physical and social environments influence health and contribute to health disparities. She leads the Social and Environmental Determinants of Health Equity Group. Jackson mainly uses observational studies to examine health disparities by race and socioeconomic status, with the long-term goal of identifying interventions to address these inequities.
Improving the patient experience
Jackson is a native of Atlanta and received her undergraduate degree in biology from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Florida. Like many science majors, she was interested in a career in medicine, but a summer internship at the University of Miami School of Medicine changed her focus. While Jackson was shadowing an emergency room (ER) physician, a Haitian immigrant who did not speak English came into the ER. Jackson was concerned, because the doctor treated his immediate symptoms to keep him alive and then released him.
"The patient had full-blown AIDS, a low T-cell [important immune cell] count, and dementia," Jackson said. "It was a wake-up call for me, because he clearly needed more upstream, preventative care [and] social measures to keep him from returning."
The experience made her think about other services that would have made the visit more productive. Access to a Haitian Creole translator during the visit and a social worker afterward would have enhanced his treatment.
Drawn to epidemiology
Her interest in how social components and physical environments affect a person’s health and wellbeing led the first-generation college graduate to embark on another summer internship. She travelled to The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland to work with a female African-American researcher who studied diabetes in under-resourced populations.
Because Jackson had relatives with diabetes, she turned the summer project into a 2-year postbaccalaureate program and realized she wanted a career in epidemiology. "I thought it was a fun and efficient way to focus on preventing, not just treating, poor health, particularly in vulnerable communities," she said.
She earned a master’s degree from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, followed by a doctorate in cardiovascular epidemiology from The Johns Hopkins University in 2012.
"We are thrilled to have Chandra Jackson join our program," said NIEHS Epidemiology Branch Chief Dale Sandler, Ph.D. "She was among the top ranked candidates in last year’s Stadtman tenure track investigator search for epidemiology and population sciences."
Broadening the field at NIEHS
Jackson studies how physical and social circumstances affect the relationship between sleep and health conditions. She is also beginning to integrate social factors into studies of biological links between sleep and other conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.
NIEHS Scientific Director Darryl Zeldin, M.D., said her research brings a whole new dimension to the institute’s Epidemiology Branch. "Her focus — understanding the physical and social environmental determinants of racial or ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in cardiovascular and metabolic disease — nicely complements the work of other scientists here who focus on the biological underpinnings of these conditions."