Margaret Hicken

Research Assistant Professor, Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan

Curriculum Vitae

I am currently a Research Assistant Professor at the Survey Research Center of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, with an additional appointment in the Division of Nephrology in the Department of Internal Medicine. Both my pre- and post-doctoral training has emphasized interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches to the study of health inequities, first at the Population Studies Center and then as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar, both at the University of Michigan.

Broadly speaking, I examine the ways in which social forces link racial group membership to the risk of poor health, particularly those conditions related to cardiovascular and renal diseases. In the US, despite tremendous resources devoted to the elimination of health inequalities, evidence suggests that they are growing. I would argue that our inability to eliminate (or even reduce) these inequalities is due to a lack of truly interdisciplinary approaches. Throughout my research program, I ground my approach to the study of race in the social sciences while integrating the biological sciences to ensure that the mechanisms I examine are both socially- and biologically-plausible.

Research Theme 1: Vigilance. Under this broad umbrella of social determinants of health inequalities, I maintain two distinct research themes. Within the first research theme, I draw from traditions in sociology, cultural anthropology, and psychology to study the notion of "racism-related vigilance" or "vigilant coping style" and its relation to the health of Black Americans. Many hypothesize that stress plays an important role in health inequalities. However, the empirical literature is remarkably small with mixed results. I would argue that this is because we have not adequately conceptualized the types of social stress that are salient to Black Americans. Ethnographers and qualitative sociologists have long-documented thoughts and behaviors of their Black study participants in which they mentally prepare to negotiate social spaces in American society. Psychologists argue that this type of anticipatory and ruminative stress - or vigilance - is particularly toxic for health.

Research Theme 2: Social & Physical Environment. In my second research program, I examine the social and physical environment as drivers of racial health inequalities. My earlier work focused on the intersection of social adversity and environmental toxicants, supporting the notion that social adversity increases vulnerability to the health effects of environmental hazards. Over the past two years, I have begun to focus more on residential neighborhoods, particularly on racial segregation, as drivers of the racial health inequalities. Furthermore, I integrate social science information on segregation and neighborhood characteristics with biomedical information on genetics and molecular pathways that may link the social exposures to disease risk. Specifically, I examine gene-environment interactions that may drive racial inequalities in kidney disease, through the differences in gene expression of inflammation pathways, hypothesizing that inequities in neighborhood characteristics enhance genetic risk to result in disease inequalities.

Selected Publications

Hicken MT, Gipson DS. Matching the Genotype in Resolution: Innovative Ways of Phenotype Capture. (2015) Seminars in nephrology. 2015 May;35(3):279-90. doi: 10.1016/j.semnephrol.2015.04.007. Review.

Hicken MT. Invited Commentary: Fundamental Causes, Social Context, and Modifiable Risk Factors in the Racial/Ethnic Inequalities in Blood Pressure and Hypertension. (2015) American journal of epidemiology. 2015 Aug 15;182(4):354-7. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwv082. Epub 2015 Jul 21.

Hicken MT, Dvonch JT, Schulz AJ, Mentz G, Max P. Fine particulate matter air pollution and blood pressure: the modifying role of psychosocial stress. (2014) Environmental research. 2014 Aug;133:195-203. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2014.06.001. Epub 2014 Jun 24.

Hunte HE, King K, Hicken M, Lee H, Lewis TT. Interpersonal discrimination and depressive symptomatology: examination of several personality-related characteristics as potential confounders in a racial/ethnic heterogeneous adult sample. (2013) BMC public health. 2013 Nov 20;13:1084. doi: 10.1186/1471-2458-13-1084.

Hicken MT, Lee H, Morenoff J, House JS, Williams DR. Racial/ethnic disparities in hypertension prevalence: reconsidering the role of chronic stress. (2014) American journal of public health. 2014 Jan;104(1):117-23. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2013.301395. Epub 2013 Nov 14.

Hicken MT, Adar SD, Diez Roux AV, O'Neill MS, Magzamen S, Auchincloss AH, Kaufman JD. Do psychosocial stress and social disadvantage modify the association between air pollution and blood pressure?: the multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. (2013) American journal of epidemiology. 2013 Nov 15;178(10):1550-62. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwt190. Epub 2013 Sep 24.

Hicken MT, Lee H, Ailshire J, Burgard SA, Williams DR. "Every shut eye, ain't sleep": The role of racism-related vigilance in racial/ethnic disparities in sleep difficulty. (2013) Race and social problems 2013 Jun 1;5(2):100-112.

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Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Racism & Health Inequities (RacismLab)

The toxicity of racism has long been understood by communities of color - and with the growth of camera phones and social media, there has been a rapid growth in the public documentation and discussion of racism in the US. Within the Academy, there is a growing interest and scientific literature in multiple disciplines systematically documenting the linkages between racism and social, economic, political, and health-related resources and constraints. Nevertheless, there continues to be a lack of clarity about the ways in which racism affects the lives - and particularly the health - of people of color, making response and intervention challenging. This lack of clarity stems from little integration of scientific knowledge and collaboration across disciplines to foster deep theory development and hypothesis testing. Therefore, we are developing a transdisciplinary working group to bring together student and faculty scholars to develop innovative theoretical frameworks and empirical approaches to better understand the impact of racism on health.

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Chicago Community Adult Heath Study

CCAHS is the only study of a large U.S. city to offer comprehensive assessments of all neighborhoods in a city, which allows researchers to implement spatial analytic models. CCAHS began as a collaborative project with investigators from the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods (PHDCN), and it contained modified versions of a community survey that was first administered in the same neighborhoods by PHDCN in 1995 and systematic social observations (SSOs) of blocks within neighborhoods similar to ones that PHDCN conducted in 1995 on a larger number of blocks but in a sub-sample of only 80 neighborhoods. Thus, at the neighborhood-level CCAHS is already a panel data set, containing unique and extensive neighborhood measures that are available in few other studies.

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Americans' Changing Lives

The Americans' Changing Lives (ACL) study is the oldest ongoing nationally representative longitudinal study of the role of a broad range of social, psychological, and behavioral factors (along with aspects of medical care and environmental exposure) in health and the way health changes with age over the adult life course.

The study began in 1986 with a national face-to-face survey of 3617 adults ages 25 and up in the continental U.S., with African Americans and people aged 60 and over over-sampled at twice the rate of the others, and face-to-face re-interviews in 1989 of 83% (n=2867) of those still alive. Survivors have been re-interviewed by telephone, and where necessary face-to-face, in 1994 and 2001/02, and again in 2011/12.

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Research Themes


Racism, Stress, & Health

Gene-Environment Interaction