Population Health

November 2, 2021

Spotlight: Sara Curran’s exemplification of interdisciplinary collaboration

Image of Sara CurranSara Curran, professor of International Studies at the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and Director of the Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology (CSDE), recognizes the merit and significance of interdisciplinary collaborations.

Curran also holds a joint appointment as professor of Sociology, another joint appointment at the Daniel J. Evans School of Public Policy & Governance and is an adjunct professor in the Department of Global Health.

Through her own interdisciplinary background and career, Curran illustrates the importance and value of holistic approaches to addressing critical population health challenges.

Curran’s first foray into the world of international relations began at a young age. Her father served as a diplomat, introducing Curran to many different parts of the world and piquing her interest in affairs beyond the United States.

After completing her Bachelor of Science degree in natural resource management and policy, with a minor in economics from the University of Michigan, Curran entered the Peace Corps in the Philippines.

“In the Peace Corps in the Philippines, I worked on reforestation projects, particularly agro-forestry initiatives,” Curran said. “In these initiatives, we were seeking to address widespread deforestation while also alleviating poverty and improving food security. It was a real-world introduction to multi-sectoral, complex development projects and the experience continues to resonate with me. It was an experience that shed light on the profound and fundamental, social, economic, and political dimensions of otherwise, technical challenges. Technical solutions were never going to work without addressing systemic social challenges.”

With this nuanced understanding, Curran continued her work on agricultural issues upon returning to the United States.

“When I came back to the U.S., I continued to work on agricultural issues, especially the farm crisis and loss of family farms and its relationship to larger economic forces,” Curran said. “Even with that experience, I realized that the systemic challenges present in the Philippines were also present in the U.S. countryside. Those two experiences turned my career compass towards the social sciences, rather than technical training in environmental sciences.”

Curran then attended graduate school, earning a master’s degree in rural sociology and agricultural economics from North Carolina State University. Subsequently, she completed a Ph.D. in sociology and demography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Curran then came to the University of Washington to work in a postdoctoral position.

“It was during my training as a demographer that I realized my scientific passion and found a home for my interdisciplinary inclinations and proclivities,” Curran said. “Demography, besides being interdisciplinary, also emphasizes a dynamic, systems thinking approach, which is one I most appreciate. [Demography requires] an understanding of the different parts of the system and how they are related. I appreciate that dynamic way of thinking and understand how that works well in many fields to facilitate change in the real world and have a strong impact on populations.”

Curran’s background and appreciation of holistic approaches to analysis motivated her to join the Population Health Initiative, serving as a founding Executive Council member for the initiative.

“One of the tasks I was asked to work on for the initiative was to think about potential degree programs related to population health,” Curran said. “In the process, it became clear to me that we already had a lot of very relevant degrees and that adding yet one more interdisciplinary degree, at any level, wasn’t what the university needed at this time, especially when there is no clear career path for a population health expert. Instead, we realized we needed a training program that took a teams-based approach to tackle population health challenges or answering population health questions. We could draw on the existing and outstanding training programs from across campus.”

This realization would lead to establishing the Population Health Applied Research Fellowship, created in partnership with the Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology (CSDE), of which Curran serves as Director.

“Through an applied research program in collaboration with an outside client, we could demonstrate a population health approach to problem-solving by bringing differently trained students from across campus together into teams with just the right array of expertise,” she shared. “The idea caught the interest of evaluation teams at Public Health – Seattle & King County and the program was launched!”

The fellowship program annually selects several UW students from various degree programs and schools to form a multidisciplinary cohort.

The group spends 10 weeks over the summer collaborating with a local client to address a pressing population health challenge. Utilizing their varied disciplinary expertise, the students help to create innovative, evidence-based tools, solutions, and insights for these challenges.

“Having mechanisms on campus, [such as the Population Health Applied Research Fellowship Program], that convene and encourage communication and collaborations can have a strong impact on tackling [population health] problems,” Curran said.

The summer 2021 cohort supported King County’s demographer and Public Health – Seattle & King County’s Assessment, Policy Development and Evaluation Unit to estimate tract or neighborhood trends in household size and characteristics across the county, especially the age, sex, race, or ethnicity and economic status of households.

The project examines how various kinds of dramatic changes to conditions in the county have changed the neighborhoods’ household compositions. King County and its municipalities are anxious to have a tool that helps them better anticipate the needs of their citizens, so that they can plan for the provision of health, transportation, and social services to sustain diverse communities.

“Last summer, we did a project around developing a forecasting tool for King County for demographic results, and this summer, we are working on how to help King County with housing planning and expansion,” Curran said. “The results of our applied research program in population health have been to build the evidence and tools for local policymakers to make decisions that improve population health for all residents.”

Curran also serves on the faculty advisory committee for the Graduate Certificate in International Humanitarian Response, offered through the UW Graduate School and administered by the Population Health Initiative.

This certificate program trains an interdisciplinary group of UW graduate and professional students to become the next generation of leaders in international humanitarian response through a multidisciplinary learning curriculum.