Much-cited epidemiologist to address UW on health equity
Nancy Krieger is no stranger to Seattle. The Harvard professor of social epidemiology lived here in the ‘80s, received her master’s in epidemiology from the University of Washington, and has a brother, James, who is a UW clinical professor.
It was also here that she discovered she could channel her passion for promoting health equity by becoming a public health professional.
Krieger moved to the city in 1980, using her undergraduate biochemistry work to get a lab-technician job. Health advocacy work prompted her to enroll as a graduate student at the School of Public Health.
“I found epidemiology and I realized it was the perfect fit for me: It involved science, doing research, thinking about biology, and thinking about history and society. All of these things come together for me as a way of analyzing the world to change the world, to move towards equity,” she said.
Krieger is the guest speaker at this year’s UW Hogness Symposium on Health Care, held Nov. 17 at the Warren G. Magnuson Health Sciences Center.
“Seattle is an important platform to talk about this subject,” Krieger said. “I feel honored to have been asked.”
Her lecture will shed light on the false yet persistent practice of slapping percentages on causes of health problems and ensuring they equal 100 percent. She will explain how this practice can be prevented, and what alternatives exist.
Krieger’s work revolves around health inequities—unfair, unnecessary and preventable social differences in status and care—and how such inequities can be resolved. This premise was, and is, revolutionary, particularly when she first introduced it in the mid-‘80s and challenged conventional beliefs that poor health resulted primarily from genetic makeup and lifestyle, without regard for how injustice harms people’s well-being.
In an interview, Krieger noted how research breakthroughs such as the human genome being sequenced and discovering the microbiome have prompted a different way of looking at biology. Rather than nature vs. nurture or considering how biology works in isolation, science is moving toward understanding the interdependence of all life forces that affect health.
“A lot of my work is about embodiment. We can’t understand what our biology is if we don’t understand it in context. How do we literally, biologically, embody our circumstances?”
Krieger is an Institute for Scientific Information "highly cited researcher" — a group that comprises less than 1 percent of publishing scientists. She has authored research and conceptual publications, a geocoding project for public health disparities, a book about theories of social epidemiology and more. Her Experiences of Discrimination instrument to measure oneself's experiences of racism and other bias is one of the most-used instruments in the field.
Most important to Krieger is that her work is useful to others.
“The work I’ve done and I’m doing has clearly resonated with other people: They’ve adopted the methods, cited the work. That’s people voting with their fingers, and that’s the point of the work,” she said.
In a similar vein, she said she hopes people who attend her lecture come away with a better grasp of the main point she’ll argue, but also with an understanding that the value of her research goes beyond the scientific, and that’s a good thing.
“Advocacy for better conditions based on good science is key,” Krieger said.
The 22nd annual Hogness Symposium will begin at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17. A reception will follow. Register here.