NIMHD’s Pioneers in Minority Health and Health Disparities Q & A Campaign
NIMHD champions workforce diversity. As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month this year, we are recognizing pioneer researchers in minority health and health disparities field, whose career trajectories have been shaped by the NIMHD-sponsored Loan Repayment Program (LRP) and subsequent research program grants. Meet Gilbert Gee, Ph.D.
Dr. Gilbert Gee
Dr. Gee is a Professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Fielding School of Public Health, University of California, Los Angeles. He is a Chinese American.
Dr. Gee’s research focuses on the social determinants of health inequities of racial, ethnic, and immigrant minority populations, using a multi-level and life course perspective. A primary line of his research focuses on conceptualizing and measuring racial discrimination, and in understanding how discrimination may be related to illness. He has received the LRP award, and subsequently, the R01 grant by NIMHD.
On the influence of his ethnic heritage in his research/career in minority health and health dipartites, Dr. Gee said, “I grew up feeling a bit of embarrassment about being Chinese. I even went through a spell where I said I’d rather eat hamburgers than rice. This shame, of course, was due to internalized racism, where racial minorities are made to feel that their background is somehow inferior to that of Whites. I realize that now. I want to do what I can to ensure that the next generation realizes that they not only have a place on this planet but should also feel proud of who they are.”
Q & A with Dr. Gilbert Gee:
How is your research impacting public health?
My work focuses on understanding how social inequities translate to health inequities, and the particular role of racism. What I have tried to do is to show that racism operates at multiple levels, across the life course, and synergistically with other forms of oppression (e.g. ageism). Of course, many of these ideas originate from other fields, including ethnic studies, sociology, and psychology. I have tried to integrate these ideas and show their relevance to public health.
How has the Loan Repayment Program (LRP) impacted your career?
The LRP was really important. I had a fair burden of student loans from both college and grad school. This burden arose because of my family’s limited means (I recall licking a lot of food stamps as a kid) and also because we didn’t really understand how to navigate the education system. By repaying my student loans, the LRP took a major burden off me so that I could focus on pursuing research that I thought was significant.
What was your motivation in becoming an independent research investigator?
I was always curious as a child and wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. I was lucky to have found that calling early on, and even luckier to have made it happen.
Is there a particular challenge that you had to overcome in your career, and what advice would you give to the next generation?
My biggest challenge was in grad school, where the final year was a hurricane of stressors. This included finding out that my parents were divorcing, losing two dissertation committee members due to health reasons, attending to several friends who faced mental health crises and became suicidal, having my car literally catch fire, and many other traumatic events. It was a crazy, crazy time. As you can imagine, my dissertation stalled.
I recall sitting alone one night contemplating my friends’ suicide attempts and then having an epiphany. I wanted to live! I wanted to see the next day. It taught me a lesson about my own amazing resilience. To this day, I draw upon that lesson whenever something bad occurs. If I could survive all that, I can survive anything.
Importantly, I didn’t do it alone. I called upon all of my friends for emotional support. I took dance lessons. It was a scary hobby because I am clumsy with my steps, and I’m a shy person. However, because it was so unnerving, it made me forget my woes.
So, my advice to the next generation would be to ask them to understand that they are not alone in their struggles. Hard times will hit them. The trick to thriving is to find ways that will help uplift you when that happens. And just as importantly, give yourselves credit for weathering the bad times that have already happened, and draw upon them to make you stronger.
What is your vision for health equity in this new decade?
Well, a decade is a very short period of time, considering how long inequity has been around. As much as I am an optimist, it seems unrealistic to expect that we’ll achieve health equity in a mere 10 years.
What I do think we need to do is to better understand the fundamental structures that drive inequality. By this, I am talking about the basic rules of society that assign power. These include “corporate personhood”, which refers to how the Supreme Court interprets businesses as “people” with certain rights 1,2. If we are comparing the rights of two “people,” but one is an individual and the other a billion-dollar corporation, guess who is likely to win? It would be useful to study how rules and structures such as these contribute to inequalities.
To be clear, I’m not even talking about people versus institutions. But rather, I’m taking about the rules of the game. These rules are the guiding assumptions that we all buy into. Some studies on these rules are emerging and I hope that our collective efforts help us achieve health equity in the near future!
- Lawrence, O. and Gostin, J.D. (2014). The ACA's Contraceptive Mandate. Religious Freedom, Women's Health, and Corporate Personhood. JAMA, 312(8): 785-786. https://doi.org/ 10.1001/jama.2014.9455.
- Jago, A. S. and Laurin, K. (2017). Corporate personhood: Lay perceptions and ethical consequences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 23(1), 100–113. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000106
Posted May 6, 2020