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PhD Student Awarded Health Policy Research Scholarship

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Madeline Phipps

Kristi Roybal will investigate the role of neighborhoods in maternal health

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When it comes to improving maternal and infant health, PhD student Kristi Roybal is thinking broadly. Conducting research in DU’s Graduate School of Social Work, she focuses on neighborhood maps, sidewalk infrastructure and parks rather than prenatal vitamins or ultrasounds. That’s because Roybal wants to know how the built environment and other environmental factors play a role in the health of pregnant

Kristi Roybal
Kristi Roybal

mothers, and eventually, their babies. “At the most physical level, these are things like pollution and proximity to environmental hazards,” she explains. “But there are other built environment features like sidewalk infrastructure, neighborhood development, lighting, and park access and design.

While the connection between maternal health and sidewalks might seem like a surprising one, the inspiration for her research is grounded in Roybal’s own life. She started wondering about effects of the built environment on mothers when she was pregnant with her son.

“I was living in the lowest-income neighborhood in Spokane,” she says. “I was starting to notice how a lack of sidewalk infrastructure and proximity to a park would impact a mom’s health during pregnancy. Coming from a more economically privileged background, I could drive to a park, but what would that mean for women who have to stay closer to their home because of transportation or economic limitations?”

With a topic as broad as neighborhoods impacting health, Roybal is excited by the opportunities for so many different possible research questions. “There are so many elements that interact—you could think about green space in a neighborhood, but you can also ask if it’s physically inviting and safe for a pregnant woman to exercise in,” she says. “You could also think about how green space promotes or inhibits opportunities to connect socially with friends and family. The challenge with measuring neighborhood impact on health is that there are so many factors that could potentially influence an outcome.”

Thanks to a scholarship opportunity, Roybal is ready to face that challenge head-on. Earlier this fall, she was named a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health Policy Research Scholar.  In addition to a monetary award she’ll receive over the next five years, Roybal will also take part in trainings to learn more about translating research to inform policy. This summer and next, she and the other research scholars will travel to Washington to meet with policy makers and others in key legislative positions.

“The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation promotes what they call a ‘culture of health,’ which is the idea that the health sector alone is not responsible for maintaining our health,” Roybal says. “There are a variety of factors that contribute, so we need collaboration to understand health policies and outcomes so we can move toward a more equitable health status across the country.”

Roybal sees her research as working to combat some of that inequity. “The infant mortality rate in the United States is quite high, especially for industrialized countries,” she says. “As inequality deepens, we continue to see that while nationally infant mortality rates are improving, we’re not doing a great job of addressing the unique needs of women of color and low-income women.”

By approaching maternal and infant health at the neighborhood level, Roybal hopes her efforts will work toward improving those rates. “The purpose of the Health Policy Research Scholars program is to think about how we improve the nation’s health and make our society more equitable,” she says.