Social Justice Symposium at the UofA

The Mel & Enid Zuckerman School of Public Health at the University of Arizona are hosting the 6th annual Social Justice Symposium on the Public Health Campus on Friday March 23, 2012 from 8:30-1:30 at Drachman Hall. Registration is required, but is open to all in the community. More info can be found here:

This year’s topic is “Mind the gap: health disparities across the globe”. Despite many well meaning efforts, major disparities exist across the globe, often resulting in inequalities in both health services (access to care) and health outcomes (sickness or health). 

Health concerns aren’t spread uniformly across the world. Some diseases are limited to specific countries, regions, or continents, while others are less preferential and seem to follow a less obvious pattern. Yet inequality is something that lies underneath many of these. An interesting place to explore this is: . Here, you can navigate to the section on health concerns (map categories > disease) and see a whole list of diseases appear. 

Click on a map that interests you. You’ll see that the world looks out of proportion. That’s because these maps are actually cartograms. Instead of representing the world by land area and geometric shape, countries are represented by their incidence/cases of a particular disease. You’ll notice for some of the diseases that some continents virtually disappear while others are quite prominent. It is a different but useful way to graphically represent how disease burden is spread across the globe. Underlying these patterns, of course, lie numerous questions of why that disease, and why there. They require us to think about both social and environmental factors. Ultimately, these maps are starting points, not ending points.

The social justice symposium in the School of Public Health will answer some of these questions, as well as provide a space for discussing how that gap can be decreased. If you’re interested, I highly recommend stopping by and engaging in this discussion!

Health geography: does that mean making sure geographers are healthy?

As previously promised, here is a post on what health geographers study. While we do care about the health and well-being of our colleagues, we’re more concerned with how health issues and diseases are distributed in neighborhoods, cities, states, countries, and around the globe.

This semester I’ve been teaching an undergraduate class on health geography. It has been great to step outside the mosquito-borne disease box and think about bigger issues of health as they relate to geography. So, today I’m going to break from my usual focus and talk about a non-infectious disease that we are all familiar with: Obesity in the US

If you click on the link above, it will take you to a CDC map that shows the spatial distribution of obesity in this country. Or, more simply put, the geography of where obesity is most common. As a health geographer, when I see this map, I have two motivations: description and explanation.

Description: Mapping health data gives me a chance to describe the locations that have a lot of cases. Here, we can see a lot of cases in the south. I might want to dig into the data a little deeper to find if certain groups within the south have higher rates of obesity. I might be able to describe general trends as they relate to age, gender, ethnicity, income, etc. But being able to describe that a certain population in a region has higher cases of obesity isn’t always enough. The next step is of course asking why!

Explanation: the question of why brings us to the step of explanation. And there are lots of possible explanations to consider. Here, I’ll briefly go through some that come to mind:

– genetics: is there something hereditary that predisposes those groups?

– lifestyle: are those individuals not eating healthy or exercising?

– community: is this a community that promotes an active lifestyle? (are there safe places to run or walk? are they lit at night and removed from vehicles? are there bicycle lanes for alternative transportation?)

– healthy food options: is there access to healthy food? food deserts are a growing concern in this country. They occur when populations of people don’t have access to fresh foods, such as produce. This can happen in rural and urban areas that lack supermarkets,  produce in markets, or simply the cost of these items is prohibitive to the population. In these situations, people are often forced to select less nutritious options, and not by choice.

– income: this relates directly to the issue above. fresh produce can be expensive in some locations, and the cost can go up when it has to be transported further distances. It isn’t just a question of access, but also affordability.

The irony, particularly in rural food deserts, is that produce is still being grown in those regions! but often it ends up getting exported – with very little, if any, going to local markets. Sometimes the agriculture has been transformed to single crops, and no longer supports the diversity of nutritional needs of a population. The link below to a PBS video goes into this issue in more detail:  and also talks about how community gardens (both urban and rural) are looking to address these issues:

These just touch on some of the explanations we could offer. It could be biological, a result of human choices, or the problem could be deeper in our society. Are we making sure we have safe places to exercise and that health options are available at affordable costs? These are the questions health geographers ask, and the types of explanations that might be given. Often, we take interdisciplinary perspectives and try to understand how a multiplicity of explanations come together to explain the patterns we see.

So there you have it – a crash course in health geography! With more to come, of course.

So…. what exactly do geographers do? (part 1)

“So, what exactly do geographers do” is a question I’ve received countless times, second only to the surprise that one can actually get multiple degrees in the subject! Certainly, that’s a fair assumption given the perception of what it is geographers do: make maps. After all, we can take pictures of the Earth from space now, we know the capitals of every country, and the locations of major rivers and mountain ranges. And we certainly have maps for just about any activity that one could want one for.

To be sure, the mapping tradition has been strong in geography, and is still alive and well today. As geographers, we recognize the things on the map are constantly changing: once small towns left off the map boom to become major cities, contested claims to land can challenge the static notion of borders between countries, urban development creates new roads, and places of interest may shut down over time. Maps sometimes need minor updating, and sometimes need major re-definitions of what they are displaying. Ultimately, maps are only a representation of reality, created at a specific place and a specific time.

So in addition to creating and updating maps, geographers are also interested in ideas, values, and perceptions held by the individuals and their societies behind what is displayed on a map. Think about it: you and your neighbor are both tasked with drawing a map of your community. Some of the things you both choose to display might be similar: major roads, urban landmarks, and historical places. A geographer might ask not only what is similar, but why? What is it about those spaces that makes them valued by the community? Does everyone in the community value them? But there might also be differences: your foodie friend might display the downtown restaurant section in great detail, while your your map may highlight the national park trail system you walk your dog on every weekend. Now imagine you and your neighbor are currently disputing over a tree that fell on someone’s car. That tree sits on the property line. Where the property lines are drawn may suddenly change to shift responsibility of the tree. What is displayed on a map, how it is displayed, and what is omitted provide important lenses into social and environmental concerns and disputes.

Sometimes maps are the starting point for questions, and sometimes they are the finished products of an investigation. But geographers don’t always explicitly use maps in their work, if at all. Geographers are inherently interested in how environmental and social processes act over space. Often maps are a useful tool for visual display, but not always. What does this mean and how do geographers go about investigating these types of questions? Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog, where I’ll talk about what it means to explore infectious diseases from the perspective of a geographer, and how this might differ from other traditions!

About me, my research, and this blog

I am a PhD student in the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, and a Biosphere2 Science and Society Fellow. Through this blog, I’ll be sharing my research and interests with you.

Most broadly, I study health and medical geography. Basically, I am interested in understanding why disease outbreaks occur at certain times and in certain places. Ever wondered why a mosquito biting you in Virginia might give you West Nile virus, while one that bites you in the Dominican Republic might give you dengue fever? Perhaps not – but these are the kinds of things I think about! The reasons have to do with both the physical and social environments: including climate and weather, vegetation type, building materials, the economy, and public health services, just to name a few. Figuring out how all these pieces of the puzzle fit together to explain the whys, wheres, and hows of diseases fascinates me. So, most of my posts on here will be about disease- often diseases spread by mosquitoes, but not always.

However, as a geographer, I’m also interested in a broader range of concerns that deal with our environment. I love living in southern Arizona and exploring the incredible landscapes and biodiversity of the southwest. So watch for posts that highlight the unique geography of this region as well. I look forward to sharing my interests with you, and hope you share yours with me as well!