Faculty Friday: Monica Wang

Faculty Friday is a series highlighting members of the Initiative on Cities (IOC) Faculty Advisory Board, by exploring their work on campus and in the city. This week, we are highlighting Monica Wang, Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences in the School of Public Health. 

By Diya Ashtakala

Diya Ashtakala: Tell me about yourself and what you are currently working on.

Monica Wang: I am a health equity researcher, scientist, social justice champion, runner, artist, and mom of two energetic kids. My areas of focus are social determinants of health and health equity through research, teaching, practice, and public engagement. I am an Associate Professor of Community Health Sciences at the BU School of Public Health, where I run a research lab targeting inequities in obesity and chronic diseases. One of my current research studies, H2GO!, is an NIH-funded community-based initiative to reduce sugary drink consumption and prevent childhood obesity at Boys & Girls Clubs (BGC) throughout Massachusetts. In this initiative, we empower BGC youth to create written, audio, and video narratives to promote water consumption instead of sugary drinks. I am also the Associate Director of Narrative at the BU Center for Antiracist Research, where I direct and oversee the Narrative Office’s initiatives to disseminate antiracist research through academic-media partnerships, public scholarship, training and education, and public-facing events like the National Antiracist Book Festival. Our mission is to reframe the national conversation on race and catalyze innovative solutions to create a more equitable society for all.

Have you done any work on COVID-19 and cities in terms of health equity?

I have! In 2020, I co-authored a paper titled “Addressing inequities in COVID-19 morbidity and mortality: research and policy recommendations.’’ This work was done in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of researchers and scientists across the U.S. who are members of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. In this paper, we highlighted evidence-based research practices and policy actions to target COVID-19-related inequities at a population level.

 What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by cities? 

Among the most pressing of challenges faced by cities today include gentrification and the rising cost of living, where lower-income residents and communities of color are priced out of their own neighborhoods. Climate change, health inequities, mental and behavioral health, and the spread of misinformation are also on my mind frequently. These challenges are interconnected, as we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

What do you think the future of cities will look like? 

It will depend on where in the U.S. we are talking about. The Northeast, the Southeast, the West Coast, the Midwest, etc … all have different populations, climate, industries, and opportunities for growth. I think there is much potential in cities investing and expanding their partnerships to be rooted in locations such as the suburbs, or smaller cities. This is imperative to avoid the bubble of rising living costs and population expansion in larger cities.

How can students become more engaged with cities and play a role in addressing issues of health equity? 

There are so many opportunities, initiatives, and programs that are currently ongoing in our communities, whether that is here in Boston or back closer to home. Health equity is an issue everywhere. Find out what leaders and organizations in your community are doing and learn more about how you can get involved. And, don’t forget that IOC is a great resource! Connect with faculty and staff at BU who are doing work in this space, and learn if there are opportunities for student internships or research assistantships.

If you were the Mayor of Boston and had unlimited resources, what program or project would you pursue and why?

One of the first examples that came to mind is a bi-annual Vaccine Day (even beyond COVID-19). I believe this would be a great way to encourage vaccinations and engage underserved communities. The bi-annual aspect would help our city, at the very least, ‘normalize’ vaccinations and therefore, nurture community health. I was deeply inspired by Boston Vaccine Day, spearheaded by Keona Wynne (doctoral student at the Harvard Chan School) in collaboration with 1DaySooner. It was a day-long celebration held this past September, aimed at promoting COVID-19 vaccinations. Over 800 people attended, and they were given the opportunity to engage and ask questions about both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines. We need to provide more opportunities like this!

What do you love about Boston?

That it is small enough to feel a sense of community but big enough to explore and learn about new neighborhoods — all the time. I’ve lived in the Boston area since I was four (grew up in JP and Roslindale), and I am always discovering new places and meeting with new people.

What is your favorite city and why?

Besides Boston, I love Portland, ME. The food scene is fantastic, it is a very walkable city, and there are many opportunities to be physically active outdoors in beautiful nature.

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