Population, Health and Place
The new Ph.D. program will capitalize on the world-leading faculty expertise in population, place and health that already exists at USC.

Population, Health and Place

A new interdisciplinary doctoral program launched by the Spatial Sciences Institute jointly with the Department of Sociology and Keck School of Medicine of USC Department of Preventive Medicine addresses modern health-care challenges.
BySusan Bell

Physician John Snow’s use of a map to discover the contaminated water source that spawned the deadly 1854 cholera outbreak in the neighborhood of Soho in London, England, is widely recognized as one of the earliest examples in which map-based analysis and visualization — what today would be called spatial sciences — influenced the outcome of public health.

As spatial science has grown rapidly in recent decades from its roots in computer science, geography, mathematics and surveying, it has become crucial to understanding the role and significance of place in human well-being — a major research focus for the next 20 years as we face some of our greatest challenges: population growth, human mobility, climate change and environmental sustainability.

To address those issues, the Spatial Sciences Institute (SSI) at USC Dornsife is launching a new interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in population, health and place jointly with the Department of Sociology and Keck School of Medicine of USC Department of Preventive Medicine.

Administered by SSI, the groundbreaking new doctoral program will be supported by core faculty from the three disciplines, as well as individual faculty appointed in other professional schools at USC.

“Our primary goal is to position our graduates among the leading scholars and practitioners working to clarify the role and significance of ‘place’ in shaping future human health and well-being,” said SSI director John Wilson, professor of architecture, civil and environmental engineering, computer science, sociology, and spatial sciences.

A multidisciplinary approach

The brainchild of Wilson, the new doctoral program is designed to create scientists with deep knowledge and skills in one discipline and excellent working knowledge of the other two so that they are ideally equipped to embark on the quantitative, cross-disciplinary and solutions-oriented science that will be needed in the 21st century. In addition to Wilson, the lead faculty representing their respective departments in launching the program are Myles Cockburn, associate professor of preventive medicine, dermatology, and spatial sciences and director, Division of Disease Prevention and Global Health at Keck School of Medicine of USC, and Jennifer Hook, associate professor of sociology.

“The multidisciplinary training and research provided by the program will produce cohorts of scientists ready to change the future of our understanding of public health, and capitalize on the growing field of spatial science as it applies to improving the public’s health,” said Cockburn.

He noted that spatial science affects all aspects of disease prevention and control, from understanding the distribution of pathogens, targeting behavioral interventions for health, determining the location of underserved populations, targeting screening and improving access to care. “In fact,” he said, “the entire continuum of our understanding of improving the public’s health requires a spatial perspective.”

 Spatial approaches facilitate interdisciplinary research and understanding. “Scholars and students often find common ground and understanding through mapping,” Wilson said. “This works best when it is not an add-on at the end of the research process, but as a pre-existing awareness of the full methodological and technological possibilities of cross-disciplinary spatial integration around the meaning of place.”

Numerous scholars have argued that spatial science will be an essential underpinning of social science and science methodology in the 21st century because our ability to address the major challenges we face requires an understanding of the spatial context of social and economic phenomena rather than broad sweeping generalizations.

“The spatial sciences offer concepts and tools for us to be more precise and nuanced in our interpretation of the world,” Wilson said.

“This program will create a new generation of scientists who are conversant with large data sets as well as varied modeling and computational approaches and can apply them to population and health problems in both meaningful and predictive contexts. The scholars completing this program will be able to work in the academic, public, private, and not-for-profit sectors to conduct research and create the policies and programs needed to promote human well-being and sustainability.”

The program capitalizes on the variety of world-leading expertise in population, place and health that already exists at USC, especially across the three disciplines involved. “It brings together spatially-aware teaching and research faculty from each of those disciplines to achieve unparalleled strength in all three areas simultaneously, while incorporating specially-designed spatial science courses that provide context for the program,” Cockburn said.

A new generation of scholars

The new program is organized around a series of graduate seminars, laboratory and project-based courses, and training opportunities in the population (demography, quantitative methods, social demography), health (biostatistics, environmental health, exposure science, epidemiology), and spatial sciences (spatial computing, analysis, modeling) that emphasize how theory, models and computational tools can be applied to understand the character and consequences of place on human health and well-being.

“This interdisciplinary approach provides the much-needed basis for new scholars in sociology and other related social sciences to work collaboratively with other researchers and policy makers grappling with issues in which the life course and place influence human well-being,” said Hook.

Cockburn noted that the course’s inclusion of spatial sciences is a unique and vital aspect. “The future of effective health care delivery, successful targeting of disease prevention, and fully understanding how environment — built, social and political — causes health or lack thereof, all require a fundamental understanding of the space in which health and well-being occurs,” said Cockburn. “We believe our program will be distinguished by providing training in all three areas from faculty experts in the three disciplines.

“We cannot treat the spatial — the character and meaning of specific places — as a Band-Aid or an afterthought. We need a new generation of scholars who can work seamlessly across the population, spatial and health sciences to improve that understanding.”