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A Collaboration of Systems Thinkers

Posted on March 26, 2009

José Szapocznik (bio) explains how one interdisciplinary project developed.


As a family therapist, and someone who does research in family therapy, I'm essentially a systems thinker. Families are very much systems, and when I started to look around my university 12-15 years ago for individuals with whom I could collaborate in my work, I found that there weren't a lot of real systems thinkers.

And eventually I met with the Dean of the School of Architecture who is an internationally renowned figure; she was one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement that talks about creating walkable communities again. And what struck me is that she would really talk the same language even though I was a family therapist and she designed towns.

And we started to collaborate slowly, and eventually we developed a program of research that's being funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, by the National Institutes of Mental Health, the National Institute of Environmental Health Science, the National Institute of Aging, and National Institute of Digestive Disorders and Kidney. So we really have developed quite an interesting program of research.

There's a lot of research that shows that individuals who live in walkable communities are more physically active and weigh dramatically less than individuals who live in less walkable communities. But a lot of those studies are confounded because people choose where they live, so if you like to walk, you may move into a walkable community.

So we designed recently a study funded by NIDDK to try to get around that confound, and so we selected a group of recent Cuban immigrants who are poor. They can't afford to go where they want to go, so they either have to live with a family member or they live where a charitable organization will rent them a room. So it takes away the confound.

So we have a longitudinal prospective study with this group, and we also know that immigrants change their behavior dramatically in the first year that they're here so that if they're exposed to different environments, different built environments, there is a greater chance that this is a group that is likely to change its behavior more than someone who's been here for a long time. So we're selecting individuals who are within the first 90 days of arrival.

And so we're looking at the impact of the walkability of the built environment on physical activity, on adiposity, which is the percent body fat, the impact of percent body fat on inflammation, which is related to cardiovascular disease, and to insulin sensitivity, which is related to diabetes. And of course if adiposity, particularly when it occurs around the gut, also has a lot to do with production of triglycerides and HDL and LDL. So it affects a lot of health indicators.

So we have a very interesting, very interdisciplinary study that has architecture, has behavioral scientists, has statistical methodologists, has endocrinologists, nutritionists -- because of course we have to control and have information on energy intake -- exercise physiologists, internists, as well as geneticists. So it's a very interesting, interdisciplinary group.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2008 National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse Conference in Bethesda, MD.


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