"You have to be flexible."

Joseph West, HSPH '04 -- Epidemiologist -- Chicago

As a social epidemiologist, Joseph West, 32, has focused on children, especially those from poor and/or minority communities. "My root interest is in how our social environment, social history, and political context affect the well-being of children, with a particular interest in male youth," explains West, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). "Most of the morbidity and mortality in the United States—stemming from heart disease, motor vehicle accidents, suicide, homicide, and HIV infection—is tied to preventable risk behaviors that begin in youth and persist into adulthood. My aim is to be an academic activist in this area, and be a voice of insight and change."

West is currently conducting research at the University of Chicago's Chapin Hall Center for Children. One project looks at the city's effort to shift people out of public housing into other homes and neighborhoods, and the effect this transition has on children's health. In addition, West is helping to develop a national model of "independent living programs" for older children leaving foster or other residential care. "A huge part of this work entails thinking critically and helping young people make the transition to adulthood given various traumas, backgrounds, and existing circumstances," he says. West is also a leader for the Chicago unit of the United Way's "Success by 6" program, through which he is working to improve immunization rates and prenatal care.

West says his is a typical "poor kid does well" story. Growing up in East St. Louis, he graduated from the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "Having ventured outside of the world of poverty and violence," he says that "life at a Big Ten University—with so many people and so much diversity—was rather overwhelming," but inspiring. After graduating, he became a social worker, but was frustrated by the "bureaucracy, waste, and apathy in the field," he says. "Every idea I presented or initiative I tried was thwarted at the state and local level because I 'didn't have the credentials.'" That barrier made him all the more determined to earn an advanced degree. At HSPH he excelled, undertaking several projects, including the establishment in Cambridge of the Men's Health Clinic, which provides health services to black and Latino males.

In September, he defends his dissertation on "the social ecology of children and how it shapes their physiological and psychological development." He counts among his most important influences three Harvard mentors: Felton Earls, professor of social medicine and of human behavior and development; associate professor of medicine Lawren Daltroy; and Augustus A. White III, Gordon professor of medical education and professor of orthopedic surgery. Says West, "They are what Harvard means to me—having the opportunity to develop relationships with persons of high accomplishment who are willing to take time and push you beyond your own recognized abilities."

To those considering a career in public health—or any profession—he counsels versatility. "People should have a skill set that is strong enough and broad enough so it allows them to easily move within and between fields," he says. "My preparation allows me to be a researcher, but if I chose to be a hospital or policy administrator, I could do that. I'm not locked in. I can just as easily switch from public health into a corporate environment. You have to be flexible."


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