Roberts and Henricks
October 26, 2018

Jennifer D. Roberts, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, has been selected by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health as a JPB Environmental Health (EH) Fellow. Funded by the JPB Foundation, the JPB EH Fellowship Program supports a new generation of Environmental Health scholars who are committed to developing solutions and supporting policy changes that address environmental, social, and economic health disparities in the United States.  

JPB EH Fellows are engaged in rigorous interdisciplinary research on the social and physical determinants of environmental health disparities in vulnerable communities. Dr. Roberts, who is in the Department of Kinesiology, studies the relationship between the man-made -- aka “built” -- environment and our physical activity levels, obesity rates and other public health outcomes.

 Through a competitive selection process, 15 new fellowships (11 to junior faculty and four to federal agency research scientists) were awarded on October 1, 2018.  Over a three-year period, fellows will receive up to $240,000, mentoring, and training in methods, skills, new technologies, leadership and communications.

“I feel honored to have been selected as one of the new JPB Environmental Health Fellows,” Dr. Roberts said. “I was attracted to the fact that you receive mentoring, but also have the opportunity to collaborate with other fellows who have complementary work and research areas.”

Through her Public Health Outcomes and Effects of the Built Environment (PHOEBE) Laboratory, Dr. Roberts is exploring the environmental factors that encourage or discourage all domains of physical activity (e.g., recreational, transportation, household, occupational) and how these factors may be associated with physical (e.g., obesity, diabetes) and mental (e.g., depression) public health outcomes among adults, adolescents and children.

“Dr. Roberts’ research is uniquely transdisciplinary, and the JPB EH Fellowship will further enhance her capacity to address the wicked problems she is studying,” said Dushanka Kleinman, Associate Dean for Research in the UMD School of Public Health. “Her research program is strong already, and this will boost her to a new level. We are really proud that she has received this recognition.”

Roberts recently launched a long-term investigation into how the introduction of Maryland’s Purple Line light rail will encourage active transportation behaviors and increase physical activity among residents from racial and ethnic populations who have been underrepresented in previous natural experiment studies of this type. The focus will be on recruiting African-Americans and Latinos, who make up about three-quarters of the Prince George’s County’s population. More than 70 percent of county residents are overweight or obese. The study will assess residents through focus groups, transit interviews, surveys and physical activity measures (using accelerometry) before the introduction of the light rail and at several time points after it opens.

“I have been working in Langley Park, which is a vulnerable area already, and could be dramatically changed by the introduction of the Purple Line,” Roberts said. “Maryland has an immigrant population exceeding 15% and over 27% are undocumented and centered in Prince George’s County.”

“On the positive side, the expansion of our of transportation infrastructure, and the associated development that accompanies it, generally encourages people to walk more,” Roberts said.

“But you can have transportation induced gentrification, which can displace people when they can’t afford their increasing rents or mortgages, and there are mental and physical health issues as a result.”

“The good will only come if people are not displaced from their homes, if local businesses can stay and all people can benefit from the increased physical activity aspects of the new transportation system.”

Another UMD researcher, who is an affiliate of the School of Public Health, Assistant Professor Marccus Hendricks in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation’s Urban Studies and Planning Program, was also selected as a JPB Fellow in the cohort with Roberts. Dr. Roberts is enthusiastic about the potential for them to formalize a collaboration they have already been discussing related to her Purple Line Light Rail Impact on Neighborhood, Health and Transit (PLIGHT) Study.

“Marccus comes from the urban planning and land use lens, and I come from a public health lens, so it brings together different perspectives in a really nice way,” Roberts explains. “We can explore over time how this transportation project will influence health in our surrounding community.”

By the time that the Purple Line is anticipated to be finished in 2022, Roberts and Hendricks will have just ended their JPB fellowship. But Roberts’ study of its impact on health will continue, as should the benefits of this fellowship experience.

“I’m excited about the longitudinal aspect of this cohort,” she says. “We’ll see each other for at least three birthdays. I really like that continuity!”

Related Links

Harvard JPB Environmental Health Fellows

PHOEBE laboratory

Related People
Jennifer D. Roberts