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Washington State University Health Sciences Spokane

Q&A with Solmaz Amiri

Published March 15, 2023, by Judith Van Dongen

Portrait photo of Solmaz AmiriIn her 12-plus years spent at WSU Spokane, Solmaz Amiri has conducted research on an unusually wide range of topics—from crime, substance use, and mental health to cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and respiratory diseases. A research assistant professor in the Institute for Research and Education to Advance Community Health (IREACH), Amiri is the first to admit that she is not an expert in any of those disciplines. Her area of expertise is in geographic information systems (GIS) and geospatial statistics, which form the foundation for her research.

How would you describe the type of research you conduct?
I study how health outcomes or human behaviors are influenced by the physical and social characteristics of environments in which people live, which is also known as the social determinants of health. In my research, I use GIS to quantify the environment. Then I look at the relationship of all these different measures with health outcomes, such as disease incidence, mortality, and so on. As an example, I might relate obesity to neighborhood walkability; access to green space to mental health; proximity to health care services to treatment adherence; or socioeconomic characteristics of neighborhoods to crime patterns. The ultimate goal is to identify which social and physical determinants of health influence a particular health outcome or behavior, which can provide clues as to how we might intervene to reduce health inequities.

How can you conduct research on health-related topics without a background in health or medicine?
Since I understand the methods more than the outcomes, I collaborate with others who do have expertise in those health outcomes. For example, a lot of our work on substance use is in collaboration with Michael McDonell, a substance use researcher here in the WSU College of Medicine. When we do research on cancers, we often collaborate with University of Washington investigators who are oncologists. I’m also part of an investigator program within the University of Washington’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, which helps me know enough about Alzheimer’s disease to be able to study the social determinants of health related to Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

What brought you to WSU?
I’m an architect and urban designer by training. After obtaining my master’s degree in my home country of Iran, I spent several years designing administrative and commercial buildings for an architecture firm in Germany. Over time, I started to feel that there might be better ways to use my degree to contribute to society. So I looked into getting a doctoral degree with the goal of becoming a researcher. I had been exposed to research as a student, a practicing architect, and even at home—my mom is an oncologist who was always trying to get me engaged in her research. However, until then, I had never seriously considered research as a full-time career. My search led me to the doctor of design program, which was housed at WSU Spokane at the time and was focused on bringing together professionals from different design disciplines to do multidisciplinary work. Once here, I started working with Kerry Brooks, who was the director of the WSU GIS and Simulation Lab at the time. He had a lot of projects related to the effect of the built environment on human behavior and health outcomes. My own dissertation covered a research project funded by the National Institute of Justice to predict residential burglary patterns based on urban design factors, in collaboration with professor of criminal justice Bryan Vila.

How did your research journey continue after getting your doctoral degree?
After I graduated, Kerry left WSU and Bryan retired. Luckily, Kenn Daratha, who was a member of my dissertation committee, stepped up to mentor me. He got me a research associate appointment within the WSU College of Nursing, where I taught statistics and research methods courses. Then when Ofer Amram was hired in the WSU College of Medicine to establish a GIS laboratory, I started working with him as a postdoctoral research associate. We did a lot of research related to disparities in health care access and environmental exposures. A few months before the COVID-19 pandemic started, I met IREACH founding director Dedra Buchwald. After I expressed an interest in having her mentor me and working with IREACH, we started collaborating in 2021. Dedra’s mentorship has been a milestone in my career and has really helped me advance my research.

What are some of your current research projects?
Here at IREACH, we are working on a cancer-related project that looks at how social determinants of health might be associated with cancer outcomes. Last year, we published an assessment of access to cancer treatment facilities here in the U.S. As a follow-up, we are doing an analysis of all neighborhoods across Washington State relating healthcare access, neighborhood characteristics, and other factors to cancer incidence, cancer stage at diagnosis and length of survival.

In another project that will soon be published, I analyzed mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to relate death rates from Alzheimer’s disease to the availability of physicians and to neighborhood characteristics such as racial segregation, socioeconomic factors like poverty, and the degree of rurality or urbanicity.

With my former postdoc mentor Ofer Amram, I’m working on a project to estimate neighborhood-level pesticide exposure for the Washington Tracking Network, a Washington State Department of Health program focused on making public health data more accessible. We also have another project looking at changes in people’s activity patterns pre- and post-COVID and what sociodemographic or built environment factors might have influenced those changes.

Additionally, I’m continuing to do research on how exposure to air pollutants relates to the incidence of asthma in children, for which I received a Ramboll Foundation grant a few years ago.

What is your proudest achievement as a researcher so far?
I’d say that I’m most proud of the fact that I have been able to successfully collaborate across different disciplines and cultures. As a result of that, I have been a co-investigator on more than 20 grants and have around 45 publications to my name, even though I am only a junior faculty member.

If you could thank someone for helping you get to where you are today, who would it be?
If I have to name just one person, it would be Kenn Daratha. The amount of support he has given me over the years has been incredible. If I can acknowledge multiple people, I would add Kerry Brooks, Bryan Vila, Ofer Amram, and Dedra Buchwald, all of whom have been instrumental to my journey so far.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.