Student Showcase: Mudia Uzzi
HBS PhD candidate, Mudia Uzzi, reflects on discovering his interest in violence and trauma research, joining the Health Policy Research Scholars program, and launching Mask On: Greenmount West – a new mask education and distribution initiative in Baltimore.
Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia
Year: Third year
Program: PhD in Social & Behavioral Sciences
Fun fact: “Before I moved to Baltimore, I lived in five cities in six years.”
How did your interest in public health begin?
In undergrad, I was like a lot of biology majors and planned on going to medical school. However, after I finished undergrad, I ended up taking a couple years off.
I moved back to my hometown in Atlanta and started volunteering for an organization called AID Atlanta, which provides HIV/AIDS services in Atlanta, Georgia. Through my involvement there, I started doing work around HIV prevention and HIV testing. That’s really when I began understanding more about what public health was. I thought the field was so interesting, especially the social determinants of health and the health of populations.
What led you to pursue your doctoral studies at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health?
When I was in Atlanta after finishing undergrad, I was really trying to figure out what I wanted to do and how to move forward. I decided to pursue a master’s in public health.
I had studied abroad in London as an undergrad. I knew I liked London and wanted a unique experience, so I applied to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine where I focused on control of infectious diseases. As part of my degree, I completed a research practicum in Peru. I went to Peru for about two months and did an evaluation of a radio entertainment education program around HIV.
After I graduated, I stayed in the UK for about four years, working in a couple different community organizations focused on sexual health and HIV prevention. I moved back to the States in 2010 after deciding I wanted to explore a doctoral degree and get an American public health experience. I moved back to Atlanta, then to Boston. I then applied to PhD programs.
I started my doctoral studies at the University of Pittsburgh but realized it wasn’t the right fit, so I transferred my PhD program from Pittsburgh to Hopkins. That’s how I ended up at HBS. I started in 2018.
Would you talk a bit more about your research interests and how they’ve evolved during your time at Johns Hopkins?
When I got to Hopkins, I shifted my area of study from HIV prevention to violence. At the same time, I was selected to receive a two-year fellowship in Interdisciplinary Training in Trauma and Violence as part of a T32 grant from the National Institutes of Health based out of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing.
Through the program, students receive training around violence and trauma. There was a weekly seminar series from experts around Hopkins. We also completed a specialty project, working with different faculty on a project related to violence.
I did my project with Dr. Lorraine Dean. We looked at how neighborhood credit scores might be associated with violence levels in Philadelphia. I was able to turn this research project into an abstract and presentation at the Society for Advancement of Violence and Injury Research (SAVIR) 2020 Annual Conference.
During my first term of the PhD program, I took a class with Zoé Hendrickson called Sociological Perspectives On Health. We had to review different articles for a paper. I knew I wanted to analyze violence, and I found an article by Sara Jacoby looking at how redlining was associated with violence levels in Philadelphia.
I found that very interesting. It led me down this trajectory of exploring spatial analysis and history – looking at violence from a geospatial, structural level. That’s how I ended up with my dissertation, which is examining structural factors related to community violence in Baltimore City.
I’m looking at redlining maps from the 1930s in Baltimore City and seeing how they’re associated with current violence levels in neighborhoods. I am very interested in exploring how historic and modern structural factors influence changes in violence levels over time.
You were recently selected to join the newest cohort of Health Policy Research Scholars (HPRS), a leadership program for doctoral students interested in health equity. What first sparked your interest in the program, and what has your journey with HPRS looked like so far?
I wanted to increase my knowledge of health policy. I knew I wanted to learn how to translate my research interests into policy change to help create safer and healthier communities. From the day I heard about HPRS, I knew it would provide me with the training I needed, and I knew I was going to apply.
After I applied, I was very nervous that I wasn’t going to get in. I crossed my fingers and toes. In the end, I was accepted. The timing was perfect; the next day after my training grant ended, HPRS started.
I just joined HPRS last month. We had our Fall Institute two weeks ago online. We got to meet all 60 of us in our cohort and bond. There’s also a bi-weekly class we take together throughout the year.
It’s interesting because the program brings together people from all different backgrounds. Some are studying sociology, engineering, and other fields, but HPRS gets everyone together to learn more about health equity, policy processes, implementation science and leadership.
Even though it’s early, I’m so excited. It’s an opportunity to build a whole cohort of friends that support you while navigating your doctoral studies – outside of your cohort and your school. You collaborate together and write papers together. The end goal is to learn to be a leader and transform the work you’re doing in school into actual policy change and interventions to transform individuals and communities around health equity and build a “Culture of Health.”
You also recently launched a new, Baltimore-based mask distribution and education initiative called Mask On: Greenmount West. How did the project get started?
When the beginning of the pandemic happened, I was frustrated, particularly with the federal-level response around masks. At the time, there was no mask mandate, and there seemed to be no one thinking about how to get resources, particularly around masks, to people who were either low-income or struggling or elderly. We know racism and social disparities are fundamental causes of health inequalities – so the lack of messaging and resources was a major concern.
Around that time, the Urban Health Institute put out a call for COVID-19 small grants. When I read it, I figured we could come up with an initiative to respond to this gap in education and access. I emailed the president of my neighborhood association in Greenmount West, where I live, who was immediately very excited about the idea.
It was a competitive grant process, and we got a $10,000 award to fund our work.
What is Mask On: Greenmount West’s mission? Who is involved in the initiative?
The overall goal of Mask On: Greenmount West is to support Greenmount West and Baltimore City residents by increasing education around and access to cloth masks.
I’m in charge of the project, and I’m working alongside two other doctoral students: Chenery Lowe from HBS and Jowanna Malone from in Epi. We’re also working with a few Greenmount West Community Association volunteers. We’ve started building a team and reaching out to different people in the community.
We’ve been organizing partnerships with other organizations, including the Iota Phi Theta Fraternity, Inc. Baltimore Montessori School, and others to raise awareness and help with distribution.
What projects has Mask On tackled so far? What are the organization's long-term goals?
Our first major step was to procure masks to give out to Greenmount West residents for free. Station North Tool Library is making our masks. They’ve made 1,000 so far.
We also want to educate people around the importance of masks and dispel any misconceptions around masks. We worked with a social designer to develop an informational pamphlet, which we pass out with the masks.
We also started social media outreach to the community, which we’re using to let the community know about distribution events and amplify CDC and Baltimore City Health Department messaging around COVID and masks.
We are also interested in learning about community’s experiences with COVID. We’re conducting a survey of Baltimore residents to learn about their experiences and opinions around COVID – from masks to vaccines. We want to use the results to improve COVID messaging, resource access, and community health.
This interview has been edited and compressed.