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Researcher Spotlights: Zoua M. Vang on improving opportunity for all people through better health care

An Asian woman smiling, with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a blue neck scarf and jacket.

Researcher Spotlights are Q&As that shine a light on School of Human Ecology faculty members’ unique scholarship and research interests.

Zoua M. Vang, the Meta Schroeder Beckner Outreach Professor and a professor of Civil Society & Community Studies, studies multiple issues at the intersection of sociology, epidemiology and medicine. She explores the effects of racism and discrimination on wellness, and community-based approaches to making it easier and safer for people of all cultural backgrounds to live a healthy life. Her research spans topics like maternal and child health, Indigenous health and international migration, and centers collaboration with underserved and marginalized populations, including immigrants and refugees, Indigenous peoples, and people of color in the U.S. and Canada.

Vang is an integrated specialist in the Ecology of Healthy Communities with the UW–Madison Division of Extension’s Health and Well-Being Institute, where she collaborates with Extension colleagues, educators and community stakeholders across the state to support health and wellness in urban, rural and Indigenous communities. She also directs the School of Human Ecology’s Maternal Child Health Equity & Safety (MatCHES) Lab, which provides hands-on experience for undergraduate and graduate students interested in researching pressing health challenges that affect underserved and marginalized communities in Wisconsin and across the globe.

How did you become interested in your area of study?

I chose to pursue a two-year National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania specifically to learn about racial and ethnic health disparities — preventable differences in how disadvantaged populations experience disease, injury, violence and health care access — and develop my skills in social demography, the study of how social and cultural factors are related to population characteristics. It was while working with one of my mentors, Dr. Irma Elo, that I developed my passion for maternal and child health. I became fascinated by the knowledge that what happens to us even before we are born and the conditions at birth can have long-lasting effects on our health and well-being throughout our lives.

What’s your motivation for doing this type of work, and how does it impact human well-being?

My interest in maternal and child health, and in health disparities and health equity more generally, has always been rooted in social and racial justice and a deep desire to improve the lives of underserved and marginalized communities. (“Health equity” refers to all people having the opportunity to be their healthiest self.) I suppose in many ways, as someone who comes from a disadvantaged community myself, I naturally gravitate toward those in our society with less — fewer resources, less access to health care, safety, power — because I know what it is like to be on the outskirts, to be treated as an other, to hunger for inclusion and belonging.

I also know that it doesn’t have to be that way. Societal divisions between the haves and the have-nots, the deserving and the undeserving, and the healthy and unhealthy need not be the status quo. I am immensely privileged to be in a position where I can put the skills and knowledge I’ve acquired to help move the needle, even just a little, by partnering with communities to bring about a more inclusive, compassionate and healthy world.

Where do you see an opportunity to shift a conversation?

It’s encouraging to see social determinants of health — things like housing, socioeconomic status and racism — being considered alongside more traditional biological (e.g., genetics) and behavioral (e.g., diet, exercise) factors in the literature, medical schools, clinics and health research funding agencies. These factors especially impact the health and well-being of Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) communities. The key to achieving health equity is having a health care system and health policies that can pivot from fixating on individuals and isolated behaviors to more intentionally working to improve the well-being of families and communities by addressing these societal factors.

What do you see as the most critical question currently facing your field?

How can Western health care systems integrate more holistic practices and beliefs by drawing from other cultural traditions? There are many, many wonderful and life-saving aspects of Western medicine. As someone who takes daily medication to manage chronic diseases, I benefit from this medical system. But as my parents (who routinely use traditional Hmong herbal remedies, prayer and shamanic rituals alongside pharmaceuticals and annual visits to their family doctor) remind me, “The doctors don’t know everything.”

This comment is not just a reflection of the deep mistrust of Western medicine found in some segments of the Hmong communities in the U.S., but it is also rooted in their firm belief that there are many methods of healing: spiritual, psychic, physical and herbal. Patients such as my parents, and also some of the Inuit patients that I work with in Arctic Canada, are a good reminder to me that in culturally diverse societies like the U.S. and Canada, health care systems that don’t seriously take culture into consideration run the risk of alienating (at best) and misdiagnosing/mistreating (at worst) BIPOC patients. A key challenge for contemporary health care systems and health care providers is to be open to other ways of knowing and healing while continuing to offer high-quality medical care options.

What else should the Human Ecology community know about you?

I like going to the beach when it’s raining. I dance to classic ’80s music (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston) in my living room to relieve stress. Gardening, especially growing cut flowers and herbs for teas, has become an obsession of mine. I come from a long line of shamans on both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family. I’m trying to transition to a vegetarian diet but my efforts always get thwarted by irresistible beef jerky cravings.