Featured Investigator: Dustin T. Duncan, ScD

Dustin Duncan Headshot

February 2023: Dustin T. Duncan, ScD
Associate Professor
Co-Director, Social and Spatial Epidemiology Unit
Director, Columbia Spatial Epidemiology Lab
Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
Department of Epidemiology

Dustin T. Duncan, ScD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, where he directs Columbia’s Spatial Epidemiology Lab and co-directs the department’s Social and Spatial Epidemiology Unit. Dr. Duncan is an internationally recognized Social and Spatial Epidemiologist. His research broadly seeks to understand how social and contextual factors especially neighborhood characteristics influence population health. Dr. Duncan’s intersectional research focuses on Black cisgender gay, bisexual, and other sexual minority men and transgender women of color. His work appears in leading public health, epidemiology, medical, geography, criminology, demography, and psychology journals. Working in collaborations with scholars across the world, he has over 200 high-impact articles (>120 first or senior-authored), book chapters, and books cited over 8,100 times; his research has appeared in major media outlets including U.S. News & World Report, The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN. Dr. Duncan’s recent work has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the HIV Prevention Trials Network, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Verizon Foundation, and the Aetna Foundation. He has received several early career and distinguished scientific contribution, mentoring, and leadership awards including from the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH), and the Interdisciplinary Association for Population Health Science (IAPHS). 

Q: What are your current research interests?
A: Social epidemiology; Spatial epidemiology; Neighborhoods and health; Intersectional health equity

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?
A: My interest in public health and health equity research began very early in my career. I was a psychology major and public health sciences minor at Morehouse College. I had various research fellowships during my undergraduate training, including one at Morehouse School of Medicine’s Social Epidemiology Research Center, which initially piqued my interest in public health and health equity research. While completing my master’s and doctorate at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, I focused heavily on social and spatial epidemiology applied to racial/ethnic health disparities. After that, I completed my postdoctoral training at Harvard and Oxford Universities, focusing largely on social and spatial epidemiology applied to sexual and gender minority (SGM) health disparities. During my time as a professor at NYU and now Columbia University, my research has a focus on intersectional health equity, focusing on Black cisgender sexual minority men and transgender women of color. Currently, I am the PI of two prospective cohort studies focused on racialized minoritized sexual and gender minority populations. The N2 (Neighborhoods and Networks) Cohort Study is an ongoing cohort study including over 600 Black sexual minority men and Black transgender women who are not living with HIV, and those who are living with HIV in Chicago IL, Jackson MS, and New Orleans and Baton Rouge LA (Original Awards: R01MH112406 and U01PS005122). The TURNNT (Trying to Understand Relationships, Networks and Neighborhoods among Transgender women of color) Study is an ongoing cohort of over 300 Black, Latina, and other racialized minoritized transgender women who are not living with HIV and those who are living with HIV in New York City (Original Awards: R01MD013554 and 3R01MD013554-02S1). 

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?
A: One organizational challenge that I have faced is colleagues not fully understanding risk behaviors in certain minoritized populations, which can be a barrier to publication acceptance and grant funding success. For example, when I began focusing on sleep health in sexual and gender minority populations, some colleagues did not agree that sleep health was a salient issue among gay, bisexual, and other sexual minority men. Our lab’s research has and continues to demonstrate the salience of sleep health in various minority populations including transgender women. 

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding? 
A: Find good, thoughtful mentors and connect with a research group (preferably one that is NIH funded). These two key resources will help significantly with applications for NIH funding. 

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?
A: Develop a positionality statement and collaborate with sexual and gender minority communities in a mutually beneficial way. While this work is challenging, I believe it is incredibly important. 

Q: Who inspires you?
A: My mother, who is a retired public health and health equity professor and research administrator. 

Q: Any final words of wisdom?
A: Be honest, persistent, and unapologetically passionate about your work.

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