Meet the Scholars: Matthew Lee


Matthew Lee is a DrPH candidate in Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University. He is a part of the Health Policy Research Scholars Cohort 2017.

Before we begin, tell us a little bit about yourself and what your research interests are.

I just started my fourth year of the DrPH program in Sociomedical Sciences at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. Our department focuses on understanding and addressing public health issues within their broader social, cultural, historical, and political context.

My current research explores the gaps, especially over time, between how public health laws and policies appear “on the books” (e.g., how they were designed and intended to be delivered) vs. how they are actually delivered “in action” (e.g., in different communities). In more technical terms, my research explores the implementation and sustainability of public health and social policies. The title of my dissertation is: “Advancing Understandings of Policy Implementation and Sustainability to Address Health Equity.”

What’s the story behind why you’re doing what you’re doing? 

After studying anthropology and public health in college, and being trained in health promotion and implementation science during my MPH, I became interested in working on structural interventions that address health equity while also maintaining deep and authentic engagement with community partners. So far in my career, I’ve had the opportunity to work on quality improvement, scale-up, and evaluation projects across several settings, including two years at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene where I focused on supporting HIV care coordination and medical case management programs across the city. Throughout my training and work experience, I’ve always been fascinated by questions of what it really means for a public health program or policy to be considered “evidence-based” or “effective,” especially in community settings where the feasibility, appropriateness, and acceptability of evidence-based interventions can change greatly over time in response to these dynamic contexts. These are the questions I try to answer now as an implementation scientist and health equity researcher.

Tell us about a project you are currently working on that you are excited about.

Instead of just talking about myself, I’d like to lift up some of the amazing work happening around me! First is the Changing the Narrative project led by the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University School of Law. They aim to help journalists and opinion leaders provide accurate, humane, and scientifically-grounded information regarding drug use and addiction. Everyone in this network really recognizes that ethical and non-stigmatizing coverage not only save lives, but also provides clarity for the public and policymakers on where action needs to take place.

I also had the chance to do some work with the Policy Surveillance Program at the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, and I find their legal mapping tools and trainings to be a public good that should be used by community leaders, policymakers, and researchers to better understand variation in laws across settings, and to better evaluate policy impacts!

Lastly, I’ve been really energized by the recent emergence of the Black Trans Travel Fund here in New York and New Jersey. They provide support to Black transgender women in the area so that they can travel safely and avoid harm. It’s initiatives like these that inspire me to think about how to scale up structural interventions that can make a difference in people’s everyday lives.

For people unfamiliar with your research area, what is one piece of information you think is important for them to know? 

Something that my advisor and dissertation sponsor, Dr. Rachel Shelton, has urged me to consider in my work is how important it is to recognize that sustaining public health programs and policies is a dynamic process and outcome, and not just a static end goal. One thing that I hope my research adds to the current conversation, is to consider how we might extend the rhetoric around “achieving” health equity, to understanding what is needed to sustain health equity.

Who is a researcher you admire and why?

Can I start by recognizing some of my HPRS cohort mates? Joseph Griffin, Arrianna Planey, and Gerson Galdamez are high on my list of people I admire for how they think and talk about their research. I’m also so impressed by the work that Catherine Duarte, Hannah Cory, and Kellan Baker are doing that can shift current paradigms in their respective areas. And Rebekah Israel Cross has contributed to an amazing new book that just came out, and I can’t wait to dive in – Racism: Science & Tools for the Public Health Professional. I’m just really excited to continue learning from everyone in HPRS and to follow everybody’s careers!

In terms of more “established” researchers, Dr. Mary Bassett, Dr. Simona Kwon, and my advisor, Dr. Rachel Shelton, all immediately come to mind. Dr. Bassett was the health commissioner during my time with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and her leadership really resonated across the agency in symbolically and structurally profound ways. Dr. Kwon is a mentor I met through an amazing HPRS faculty member—Dr. John Chin (another researcher I admire)—and she has been so incredible in supporting my work and providing excellent feedback. And don’t even get me started on Dr. Shelton! She is both brilliant and kind, and I’m so grateful for her mentorship every single day. All three represent exactly the kind of rigorous, theory-driven, and community-engaged scientist that I strive to be.

How has being an HPRS Scholar helped you during your time as a doctoral candidate?

The training provided by HPRS has been crucial in helping me integrate my prior training and work experience with everything I have been learning in my doctoral program. Conversations with HPRS faculty, staff, and other scholars often help me advance my thinking in bold and exciting directions. Also, knowing that they believe in me helps me to believe in myself!

In the RWJF HPRS program, we have worked with you to help you think further about using your research to develop policy. If you could use your research to change any policy, what policy would it be? 

I would use my sustainability research to examine how the Hyde Amendment, which creates undue burden and barriers for people seeking safe and legal abortion care, has been implemented and sustained over the last 43 years. I’m especially interested in understanding what it means for policy implementers at the ground level when a contentious policy is extended each year and frequently re-worded. Given consistent pressure and recent energy to repeal the Hyde Amendment, I’d be especially interested in conducting de-implementation research to understand what strategies would be effective to ensure the successful de-adoption of a long-standing harmful policy.

Ok, here’s a fun question to wrap things up. If you were stranded on a desert island, what three items would you want to have with you?  

The first things to come to mind were a good bottle of olive oil, a sharp chef’s knife, and my French press, but I’m not really there for vacation, am I? I suppose I should be more practical and say my tent, my hatchet, and a robust first aid kit.

Thank you so much for your time!

Thank you so much for these thought-provoking questions!


Matthew’s Bio



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