To read the report referenced in this post, click here.
Before we dive into the study, can you tell us a bit about yourself, who was Amy Lewin before becoming a professional?
I’m a clinical psychologist by training. I went right from college to graduate school to get my doctorate in clinical psychology. I really thought at the time that I wanted to be a therapist, particularly working with kids. I pursued that, spending six years receiving my degree.
When I finished, I went to work at a clinic for infants and young children. I thought this was my dream job working primarily with kids, but I was miserable. It felt ultimately ineffective conducting sessions that were usually one hour once a week, particularly with kids who were at the mercy of all these large systemic forces in their lives. I felt a sense of responsibility in trying to help them, but felt like I had very little actual power or control over the things that were buffeting them about and affecting them emotionally.
That combination was really frustrating for me, and led me to burn out after a couple of years in that position. At that time, I panicked and thought, “I just invested six years of my life and all this money and time and energy into becoming a psychologist and now I’m not really happy doing it, what do I do?” I realized the only other thing I was trained to do at that point was research. When I was in graduate school, I thought I had no interest in research whatsoever because the kind of research I was exposed to in clinical psychology back in the late 80s and early 90s when I was in grad school was very traditional, very narrow, very academic research, and didn’t feel to me like it really helped improve people’s lives in any way. But I was at a loss at that point as to what to do, so I went to do a research postdoc at Children’s National Medical Center, which you may know as Children’s Hospital, in downtown D.C.
There I was really fortunate to have an amazing mentor who was a pediatrician and an epidemiologist. She taught me a lot about public health disparities and about how research can be used as a tool to improve intervention, be the basis for advocacy, communicate needs and priorities to policymakers and allocators of resources, and to make change on a more systemic scale. That inspired me and turned my career trajectory around, that’s how I ended up in my current position.
Pivoting to the study, why was Montgomery County chosen as the community of focus?
This goes back to the idea of working with a community. For the last two years, I’ve been working closely with an organization in Montgomery County called Identity, a very impressive organization that has been around for twenty years and serves the Latinx population of Montgomery County, particularly youth and families. They’re largely a youth development organization that works with kids in elementary school all the way through high school. They do after school programming, lunchtime tutoring, and summer remedial work. They work with older youth who are disconnected from school and work and help them to receive job training and connect to positive employment. They work with families and provide mental health services and run school-based wellness centers in three high schools. They provide a range of services that are all focused on youth and family. Identity asked me to do this report that serves as a marker of their 20th anniversary. They wanted to analyze data they had collected as part of their regular programming and synthesize those data with existing publicly available data from the county to create this picture of how Latinx youth are faring in the county. The intent was to use this as a benchmark to hold administrators and policymakers accountable for making improvements. The drive to do the report came from them, and their belief that the piece was needed to continue the type of advocacy work they do and take care of the kids and families they serve.
Do you believe that the challenges facing the county are purely structural? That is, given unlimited resources could the issues described in the piece be addressed.
No, I don’t believe the issues are purely structural. More resources would be a good first step, but it goes beyond the issues of resources. A big part of what we discovered looking at the data Identity collected is the extent of trauma and adversity faced by a lot of the youth that they serve.
This is something that is not surprising. When you read other studies about Latinx youth, especially first-generation Latinx youth, they tend to be from Central America and are immigrating largely because they are fleeing civil war or other kinds of violence. Many have experienced traumatic situations in their countries of origin prior to migrating. We know the process of migration can be dangerous for many of them, and there can be trauma that occurs during that process.
Even though they may be physically safer in the U.S., they can live under stressful circumstances. Poverty is a significant stressor, as is not knowing the language and culture, particularly when coupled with a lack of adequate support. Finally, in the last couple of years experiences of racism, discrimination, and a fear of deportation are chronic, relentless day to day stressors that cumulatively affect the well-being of these young people, not only in terms of their mental health, but also in terms of how it shapes their brain development, how it shapes their behavior, the ways it interferes with their capacity to pay attention, be planful, do school work, and behave in ways that are expected of children in our society.
In addition to the resources that are needed, we need educators and school administrators who understand these experiences and are trained to respond to the needs and behaviors of these children with measures that are not punitive, but productive, and supportive, and helpful. That’s a really big piece of what’s needed, and obviously not having experiences of racism and discrimination. These are some of the things that come to mind that aren’t structural per se but are nonetheless important in enhancing their well-being.
Have you done any work regarding the Latinx community outside of Montgomery County?
Not specifically, no. Many of the teen parents I worked with in D.C. were Latinx. But I wouldn’t say I’ve done work focusing specifically on the Latino community and the needs of that community.
Did the focus on the Latinx community in this particular paper make the research process any different compared to past experiences?
Yes and no. No in that racism, poverty, discrimination, trauma, a school system lacking the resources to meet the needs of children—all of these issues go beyond the Latino community. I think that what’s particularly unique about the Latino community, at least in Montgomery County, is the very recent experience of migration, the reason for migration differs from other groups of immigrants, and the ways in which current events and our political and social climate are very focused on that group of immigrants.
How big of a role do local public officials play in helping fix the current situation?
They’re certainly allocators of resource and priority setters, so that is certainly an important piece. I think it’s mixed. There are ways in which they play an important role, and there are challenges that go beyond what government officials can do.
Shifting away from the study a bit, our readers might be interested to hear more about the process behind publishing a research paper. Can how do you decide which colleagues to work with, how long does it take etc?
That’s a very big question. Generally, I have sought out collaborations with colleagues who, first of all, I enjoy as human beings because we’re going to work closely together. Choosing someone who you share a mutual respect with, and get along with, is an important place to start. Typically, I collaborate with colleagues that bring a complementary set of skills to the table. For instance, data analysis, running statistical tests and analyzing large data sets. isn’t my strong suit. Often, I’ll collaborate with someone who brings that strength into the mix. Currently, I’m working with a colleague who specializes in qualitative data collection, something I’ve done but isn’t my area of expertise. Those are examples of why it's helpful to put together a team of collaborators who bring skills, expertise, and experience that will complement the strengths of others. I very much enjoy working as part of a team. I find the experience is richer and the quality of the work is better when it’s more than just my brain working on it. The process of designing a study is the most complex and time intensive part. You don’t just ask a question and answer it.
The conceptualizing of the question and boiling these concepts down to measurable questions and designing a study that feasibly and efficiently answers those questions is pretty tricky. Most of the work I do is applied and community-based. In addition to collaborating with other researchers, I’m also collaborating with members of the community and service providers in the community. Their input is a very big part of how a study gets developed. I can have these questions of what I’m interested in and curious about, but ultimately what helps people the most is what people say they need the most. I do a lot of listening to what these providers and leaders tell me are the most pressing questions to answer or develop, and what’s realistic in terms of conducting the study. That conceptualizing doesn’t occur in my own head or even with my research collaborators. It involves collaboration with community members, and a lot of listening and learning from the community.
Then we need to find funding to conduct the study. Most studies are labor intensive so somebody needs to pay the salaries of the people doing the work. That often involves writing grant proposals, which is a time-consuming process. Once the study is funded from either a grant or some other source, it takes time to do the study and collect the data involved in answering the questions. The study I referred to in the previous question took four years to collect all the data.
I do program evaluation research, which is evaluating how effective a program is. That has to be a long-term project as you have to see how people respond before and after a study is done. There are other kinds of research that aren’t as time intensive but this kind certainly is. You’re left with all this data that has to be cleaned and organized within a database. The process of analyzing the data is both a conceptual and a mechanical one. I contribute to the conceptual part of this process, which is typically a collaborative one. I’ve found that during the analysis process every time you answer a question more questions emerge. Why were these our findings? What caused this? Could we test that by trying this? These questions cause the analysis phase to take much longer than you’d think.
And then once you have all of the analyses completed and you’ve synthesized them, and you understand them, that’s when you write a paper that summarizes these findings and discusses their implications. Next, you submit your paper for peer review - a process most academic journals require before publication. This process also takes quite a while. Finally, a paper gets published. It’s a lengthy process which hopefully you can see from my answer.
Which aspects of your job do you find most enjoyable, which aspects are the most challenging?
I absolutely love my job so there are plenty of aspects I find enjoyable. I really love working with students. I teach undergraduates, but also work closely with doctoral students on my research as well as their research. I also love working in the community and partnering with an organization like Identity, learning from them about their experiences and thinking about how the skill set I have can in some small way contribute to enhancing, expanding, improving the incredible things that they’re able to do. I love conversations with them and learning from them. I’m also a bit of a nerd so I love the academic stuff and finding out the answers to questions. I also enjoy thinking about how to apply the answers to questions so they have a real impact. I think those are the things that are most satisfying to me. In terms of the most challenging, it would have to be finding funding. Writing grant proposals isn’t the most challenging part, particularly when there’s an idea I’m excited about. Writing persuasively about it can be satisfying. What feels like insurmountable odds of receiving funding, putting so much work, and energy, and time into proposals that don’t get funded because so few make the cut can be very challenging. The length of these proposals depends on the entity you’re applying to. I just submitted one at the beginning of November that was 25 pages. That was just the narrative portion. You also have to include the budget, the budget justification, and other supporting documents. Proposals to NIH are about twelve pages in length, but typically include a lot of supporting documents. As you can see, these are big efforts and it’s not just the writing part that requires time, but the conceptualizing part I mentioned earlier, which takes a lot of thinking and working and reworking. It’s interesting but very time consuming, so to have to work that hard to produce these proposals for an idea you know is great, but there simply aren’t the resources available to make it happen, that’s probably the hardest part.
Rapid Fire Round
I have two. One that is very relevant to this report is Faraway Brothers by Lauren Markham. It’s non-fiction, but it’s a very easy read. It’s by a journalist who wrote about twin brothers who as teenagers migrated from El Salvador to Oakland, California. She follows them on their journey from before they left El Salvador, during their migration, and as their lives unfold in the first couple of years that they’re here in the U.S. It also talks a little bit about the family members they left behind at home in El Salvador. It’s a true story, and it’s very compelling and well done. It highlights some of these issues in a way that my research can’t. It tells the stories of real people. If you’re just looking for a good novel, I would recommend Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. It begins with two women who ended up on either side of the slave trade in West Africa, and follows their descendants over time. It shows how each lineage unfolds over many generations.
I love music too much to just give you one!
Career role model?
My mentor at Children’s hospital.