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Getting to Know Dakota Cintron, Our New Postdoctoral Fellow

September 29, 2020
Interview
Photograph of Dakota Cintron.

As the inaugural Postdoctoral Scholar of the E4A Method Lab, I have had the extraordinary opportunity over the past two years to work with the E4A team on several fascinating projects addressing methodological challenges faced by researchers seeking to build evidence on what works to improve population health and reduce health disparities. It is with excitement and nostalgia that I now pass on this role to my capable successor, Dakota Cintron. Like me, Dakota is passionate about research methods as a lynchpin to building better evidence on social interventions. I sat down with Dakota to learn more about his background, interests, and hopes for the coming years of the E4A Methods Lab. What follows is a brief introduction to Dakota, to learn more about him read the full interview.

Dakota, I would like to start this interview by first asking you for a short personal biography about where you’re from, any influential aspects of your upbringing.

I grew up in Wheeling in the northern panhandle of West Virginia in a relatively rural area. I was involved in health science programs as a high school student and became interested in science and health. At the time, I wanted to go to school to become a doctor. I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey – which was a great experience – as a biology major. I took an amazing class about research policy: how policy is done and how research is done to influence policy. This class profoundly moved me because we started to learn about social policies that had tangible meaning to me, such as WIC and food stamps. Learning about these policies and learning that people were doing research in service of keeping those policies alive for those families that needed them shaped my thinking about what I wanted to do in the field of health care. I switched my major to public health and started taking more classes in public health, public policy, and epidemiology.

Do you have overarching career goals that you could describe?

My overarching career goal is to continue to promote the reduction of health inequalities and disparities through research and advocacy. Raising more awareness about the existence of health disparities and inequalities important to me. Professionally, I’m not sure where things are going to end up. I was excited about taking this Postdoc position at E4A because it will allow me to move into doing more of a mix of methodological and applied research. It’s a big switch for me to go from research methodology and measurement to epidemiology and biostatistics, while there will be some learning curves, I think the transition will work out well.

What drew you the E4A methods lab?

One of the things that excited me about being at the E4A methods lab was that you are thinking about causality and are also cognizant of graphical models and trying to promote thinking around that. When I reviewed a lot of graphical model research for my dissertation, a lot of it kept coming back to causality. In the social sciences, it’s clear that the notion of causality is a real challenge. I also appreciate E4A’s effort to push forward health and well-being in a broad range of domains – there are many different areas E4A is focusing research on – from firearms, for instance, to environmental justice. It is a place where I can sit and think about methods and think about how much we need to think about them, but also do applied research. Where are these critical methodological challenges that exist for people moving forward to help promote health and well-being?

At E4A, we think methods are fundamental and we want to deliver rigorous and actionable evidence on what social programs and policies are going to improve population health and reduce health disparities. In your own words, could you describe why you think methods are important and why you’ve chosen to focus on methods?

I believe it’s imperative to match your methods with your data and your research questions, kind of like statistical conclusion validity. I am also always concerned with issues of reliability and validity. I think that these ideas are essential, but methods are everywhere and offer a way to think about problems creatively. I care about methods because they offer a foot forward towards answering a question correctly.

For me, methods are kind of like a common touchstone between a lot of different disciplines and allow us to share value about the research we want to do. Thinking methodologically and thinking about research methods, gets you in the space of looking at data and thinking about how to best put this together to help look at a question – maybe not answer the question, but better gain insight from asking the question.

What are you most looking forward to in your work with the E4A team and the methods lab? For example, what do you hope to learn, or what are you excited to work on, anything in particular?

One of the biggest things I’m excited about is being in the room and learning about how the research proposals come in and go out, so this idea of promoting work. I’ll also get to see what people are putting forth in terms of rigor, quality, and creativity – how people are trying to address some of the problems that society faces today – and to get to be in the room thinking about methods, thinking about is this rigorous and how to move rigorous research forward is exciting.

The economics training in me sees that E4A is dealing with a scarce amount of resources and needs to be judicious about getting those resources to people that do the work that is going to create action, that is going to create movable results, and is going to have an impact on people’s lives. I think E4A is a unique postdoc position because it offers the ability to sit at a table where decisions that influence practice and potential policy are made, so that’s really important.

I think there are very few postdocs where you get to be on the inside of the grant decision-making process, both to see the wide-range of research that researchers are proposing as solutions to social problems and also how the E4A team evaluates them. What are the sticking points of that research, what are the potential sources of problems? Getting exposure to that is really fascinating, it was one of the things that attracted me to this postdoc too.

It’s interesting too because the decision-makers at E4A are a group of researchers who are stakeholders in the research community, and that is a huge difference, I think, between big institutions, where there may not always be a blending of voices that are so stakeholder laden. Even being in the first meeting, there was some balance between what’s the most rigorous research and what may be impactful and provide critical evidence for action. Whereas, maybe if you were in a bigger institution, they might just say, no that doesn’t meet that threshold for rigor, we’re going to toss it out. So the reviewers see the value in the research that people are doing when you have people from a community mindset thinking about it, not necessarily only bureaucrats. 

Dr. Cintron double majored in Economics and Public Health at Rutgers University. Afterward, he completed a Master of Science in Applied Statistics and a Masters of Education in Evaluation and Measurement at Teachers College. He obtained his PhD in Research Methodology, Measurement, and Evaluation at the University of Connecticut, with a focus on learning research methods to promote sound, rigorous, valid research that allows us to make the inferences that can get those resources to people that need them the most.

Dr. Cintron’s research focuses on the application, development, and assessment of quantitative methods in the social and behavioral sciences. His areas of research interest include topics such as item response theory, latent variable and structural equation modeling, longitudinal data analysis, hierarchical linear modeling, and causal inference.

Read the Full Interview

About the Author

Ellicott Matthay, PhD, is a social epidemiologist and postdoctoral scholar with E4A. She conducts methodological investigations to improve the way that research in her substantive areas is done, because she believes that improving the methodological rigor of applied studies is one of the most important steps to identifying effective prevention strategies.