Closing the Health Disparities Gap
By Kenneth Mashinchi
From cancer to COVID-19, Marcelle Taylor Dougan is identifying inequality in care and taking steps to make care accessible to all.
Health disparities, like lack of access to care, can be eliminated by leveling the playing field. San José State University Assistant Professor Marcelle Taylor Dougan is doing just that. Dougan entered the public health field in what she calls a “roundabout way.” As a chemical engineer, she worked in the pharmaceutical industry for nearly a decade, working on drugs for heart disease, childhood leukemia and the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine.
She says, “I began to realize by the time somebody needs a heart disease drug, isn’t there something else that could have been done earlier on in the process to help?”
So she turned to public health and epidemiology — first getting her MPH at Columbia University and her doctorate at Harvard University, before working in breast cancer research as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford’s Cancer Institute.
Dougan is currently creating a mobile app for breast cancer survivors to provide information on diet, sleep and exercises in an effort to lessen the gap in health care that women, especially from communities of color, receive.
“With the app, you can provide options that will suit their tastes, including recipes that suit different palates,” says Dougan, who joined SJSU in 2015. “If you intervene at a level that affects everyone, then you can reduce the disparities that way. But you need to meet people where they are.”
Dougan's mobile app provides breast cancer survivors information on diet, sleep and exercises. Photo: Robert C. Bain.
“Students really benefit from having those practical experiences that they can then take into the workforce."
— Marcelle Taylor Dougan
Public health disparities were a major area of concern during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Dougan and her undergraduate and graduate student researchers stepped up, rapidly shifting to COVID-19 related research to examine these disparities.
“Thanks to the pandemic, a lot of people are now aware of what it is that we do and how important public health is,” Dougan says. “It has also amplified the need for solutions that cut across disciplines. Public health people need to be talking to engineers, who need to be talking to communications people, who need to be talking to technologists.”
Dougan teamed with Giselle Pignotti, associate professor of nutrition, food science and packaging, to look at nine Bay Area counties and Santa Cruz, and researched how people of color were more likely to experience food insecurity due to the pandemic. They have since published two peer-reviewed articles, as well as a research brief, on their findings. Dougan and her research team also examined residential segregation using county statistics to analyze structural factors, focusing on how those factors influenced who contracted COVID-19 and who died from it.
She prioritizes including students in her research projects and says it is rewarding to see them play integral roles in the work.
“It gave me the experience to work with raw data sets, to manage my own time and collaborate with team members, and contributed to me finding a job after college working in data and research,” said Julian Chairez, ʼ22 Public Health, who performed data analysis for the research prior to graduating and now works as a contractor on-site at Apple as a data collection facilitator.
“Students really benefit from having those practical experiences that they can then take into the workforce,” Dougan says. “You see a lot of them just light up as they apply concepts learned in the classroom to real-life research.”
The ability to engage in a research opportunity as an undergraduate helped Julian Chairez find a job on-site at Apple. Photo: Julian Chairez.
“Public health people need to be talking to engineers, who need to be talking to communications people, who need to be talking to technologists.”
— Marcelle Taylor Dougan
Want to learn more?
Listen to Dougan in conversation with SJSU Provost and Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs Vincent Del Casino, Jr., on his podcast, The Accidental Geographer.
Top Photo: Robert C. Bain