Dr. Ye Ji Kim is joining the E4A Methods Lab as our new postdoctoral fellow. We are fortunate to have her join us and bring new perspectives and ideas to the Methods Lab. While the readers of the blog will hear more from her directly over the next few years as she authors her own posts, we wanted to start by introducing her. I had the opportunity to sit down with her and chat about her research interests, background, what questions she hopes to tackle while at E4A, and what she likes to do in her free time. Join me in welcoming Ye Ji!
Maria: Tell me what you do research about and what you’re excited about.
Ye Ji: My research focuses on understanding social and political determinants that drive immigrant health disparities in the US. In my dissertation work, I examined how social determinants of health impact the health of immigrant children at multiple levels of influence. First, I studied how household generation status in turn shapes the ability to obtain insurance, which then connects to immigrant children’s access and use of healthcare services.
I've also thought about immigration as it relates to neighborhood level factors, such as ethnic enclaves and ethnic structures of residents. Neighborhoods can be a place of buffering, providing community support. It can also be a source of information dissemination, like a resource factor for families to access care. Coethnic enclaves and ethnoburbs may also provide a more welcoming context for immigrants, though at the same time, these communities may suffer also from poverty with dense living conditions. Finally, I've also thought about immigration at the policy level, such as provision of public health benefits and how there may be some places in the system limiting access to public health benefits for people without documentation in the US. So I’ve been thinking about how the individual-, family-, neighborhood-, and policy-level aspects of immigration impacts health, and I'm excited about moving forward with the team at E4A to apply rigorous, causal inference methods.
Maria: Before we move forward, let’s move back a little bit. How did you get excited about that? What brought you to those topics?
Ye Ji: It’s a long story, because I didn’t get into immigrant health disparities work until my dissertation work. My training in undergrad was in psychology and ethics. After I got my psychology degree from college, I worked with a research group investigating how intergenerational trauma affects the psychological and physical health of Black mothers and their children in the metropolitan Atlanta area. I was a clinical interviewer and spoke with many families of their health and their trauma. While interviewing families at my job, I realized that there are structural and policy factors impacting them, and how, often, many of these factors are beyond their control in the neighborhoods that they live in and the trauma that they are exposed to.
So that’s really when I thought to focus my research into the structural and political factors that influence health. Throughout my epidemiology training, aspects of how I grew up started to become more and more relevant to the research I wanted to do and move forward with.
Briefly, I was born in Korea and my immediate family members moved to the US when I was eight years old. Back then I had minimal idea of what was going on. My parents told me we were getting on an airplane, and the next morning I was in New York! It was a totally different experience than going to grade school in Korea. We also moved quite a bit. Of course, language was a barrier. My family didn't have access to insurance or health care when we started our lives in the US. Healthcare is a completely different story in the US than it is in Korea, where it's universally accessible to all citizens.
But growing up, I didn't really think about this a lot. I was just trying to adjust and adapt to different places – being a kid, afterall, was enough for me. But once I got to college I started thinking about all of these different bits of my childhood, such as translating health and legal documents and bills. I started to realize that from childhood, immigrant children have a unique experience in the US. I also came to terms that I didn't have health insurance until I came to college, and that makes a big difference in how we grow up. I remember in my childhood, that my parents were afraid to use healthcare services or face an emergency due to the high out-of-pocket costs of healthcare. Now I understand that going to the ER without health insurance is incredibly expensive. I also think that for my parents, it was also something beyond the costs. As in, they would worry about traveling back to Korea as it might impact obtaining permanent residency, even though to a certain extent, they didn’t have much to do with each other. I can recall the struggles of obtaining residency so clearly in my childhood.
So all of that to say, my experiences have really shaped how I think about research. Growing up as an immigrant in the United States, I knew that my experiences were different. But then, on the other hand, I'm privileged to obtain higher education and have a career as an academic. And now, being able to do this research is something of a privilege for me, and I want to make sure that I devote my time to shape my research as a place for people of color to really have a voice. I want to provide research as a stepping stone to create change, whether that be through community level interventions or through policy, in immigrant families’ lives. So that's how I got into this area of research. You probably weren't expecting quite the long story.
Maria: That’s really amazing. Tell me what you think of as the questions that you would really like to be able to answer. What are the questions that you really wish we had the answer to because you think it would be helpful for people?
Ye Ji: I'm definitely on a path of learning right now with all of the changes around policies of immigration. The environment for immigrants also changes between administrations. Something that I've been thinking a lot more about have been the policies around how immigrants, specifically minors, enter the country and what our administration is doing, or perhaps not doing, to make sure that children enter into this country with safety measures in place. I recently watched a documentary on labor trafficking of migrant youth at Trillium Farms at Ohio. There was a phase in the country where the US Customs and Border Protection weren't asking for any birth certificates of the children from the sponsors that receive minors from other countries and created a loophole in the system for labor trafficking.
There are so many questions around how everyday policies that affect the safety and health of immigrants every single day that we don't have answers to. For example, what is the evidence policymakers are using to be able to develop and implement these policies? We also have limited information in the literature of the impact of these policies on individual immigrant health, particularly because there are limited resources being put into immigrant health research. Immigrants are a vital part of our society, as well as one of the largest growing parts of American society. It's important that we understand what safety net measures are in place for them to access care and other social benefits well and securely. We want individuals and families immigrating to the US to be successful, so that we can all become a successful society as a whole.
Maria: That’s great. I love that idea that we're enmeshed in this web of policies that are often invisible until something goes wrong, and then they're very visible to the people who are being harmed by the policy. But sometimes, you’re not caught by a policy that should catch you but doesn’t and you don’t even know. You just know that bad things have happened.
Why did you want to work for E4A?
Ye Ji: I was thinking about all this, and came across the E4A postdoc fellowship opportunity last summer. I initially thought, “this wasn't something I was looking for” but then also simultaneously thought, “this is exactly what I am looking for.” The E4A methods lab will be a place where I can really think about these questions, but also be able to match them with rigorous methods. I think that was a piece that I wanted to have a really good handle on as I move forward professionally - to be able to say, my research is closely tied with how we can initiate action in policies, programs, and interventions. So this was a great opportunity for me to jump into, to be able to make that connection between the research and change towards health equity.
Maria: We talked at some point about some of the methods challenges that you see, and that you hope we can potentially tackle. I think some of those were really a reflection of the challenges that you had in your dissertation. Of course we all start with dissertation ideas that are amazing and then figure out that what's feasible is a much smaller piece of the whole. But I think that you had a really great perspective on what the challenges are that we need to solve in order to be able to deliver actionable research around this.
Ye Ji: One of the things I've been thinking a lot about, and I can already tell from the few meetings that I've been in with E4A that the group is thinking a lot about, is the fact that we're in this world of big data. What are we doing with this data? And how can we actually get the most out of the data sets that are available to answer the questions we want? When we're thinking about racial and ethnic disparities among diverse racial and ethnic groups, we want to make sure we have certain bits and pieces of information about them that certain health surveillance datasets might not have, but that other data sets do. For example, we can use simulation methods to use one data source that has one bit of information, say documentation status of an immigrant, and simulate that information to combine with another data source that might have rich health data to make inferences. We are moving quickly beyond studies that are underpowered due to data limitations. I think we are at a prime time to make use of the large data sources to understand the health disparities.
Maria: Right, using tools to link datasets with different strengths and qualities.
Ye Ji: Something else I've been thinking about throughout my PhD, is the minimal causal inference methods used in social epidemiology. I think it's often easy for us to gravitate toward methods that we are used to, and also harder for us to really answer some of the more difficult causal inference questions. For example, instrumental variables are a viable way to answer questions in social epidemiology as well. I’ve been reading work in sociology where social scientists have identified prior immigrant concentration of a geographic area as an instrumental variable to understand the relationship between current immigrant concentration and violent crime rates. During my time with E4A, I aim to review the use of instrumental variables in immigrant health research and to use this method to examine the racial and ethnic differences in the relationship between neighborhood concentrations of immigrants and their health.
Maria: That’s great. Maybe we should spend our last few minutes talking about something fun. What do you do for fun?
Ye Ji: I really like to keep a creative streak outside of work. I like to wander in modern art museums, listen to a lot of music, go to concerts and photograph! I got a hold of my dad’s old film camera several years ago and I’ve been into photography since.
Maria: What do you like to photograph?
Ye Ji: I want to say anything and everything but I started to realize that I like to photograph every day things that are often overlooked. One of my favorites from a recent trip is of a person on the bus with an adorable dog. When they got on the bus, the dog knew exactly what to do and swiftly sat down in what seemed like a regular spot for them. The person placed their legs right around, and the dog’s tail was wagging the entire time. I was sitting near the back happily looking at this dog’s tail my entire bus ride, and so I took a photograph of the dog’s tail.
Maria: Oh, this is so great! Can we post it on the blog?
Ye Ji: Yes, we can certainly post it on the blog! So things like that, small, mundane, but wonderful things that we pass along each day. When I take photographs of them, it often becomes a distinct memory in my mind.
I also have a dog, so I love every moment with her.
Maria: What kind of dog?
Ye Ji: I have a black lab. She has a little bit of creaminess in the center of her. She's adorable, too. Her name's Leo.
Maria: Does she go on photography trips with you?
Ye Ji: It's funny because it's very hard to get photographs of us. I take photographs of her all the time at home but when I'm outside with her, I end up spending the moment with her outside.
Maria: Is there anything else you think we should definitely mention in this blog?
Ye Ji: I'm really excited about the time that I'll be spending here, if you couldn't tell from my interactions with the team. I can already tell from the few meetings I’ve had with E4A, that every hour I spend with the team I learn so much. I think all of the team members really have this drive and energy toward achieving health equity and making sure that the research projects we fund have an actionable goal. That in and of itself is really inspiring for my own applied research. So it’s been great so far, and I’m really looking forward to the next few years.
Maria: Well, that’s great! We’re so glad you’re here and look forward to working with you.