5 Questions with Faculty: Akiko Hosler
Akiko Hosler, PhD, is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director at the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Prior to joining the University at Albany in 2007, she served as Director of Diabetes Surveillance and Evaluation at the New York State Department of Health for 11 years. Dr. Hosler’s research has two major areas of focus; diabetes and its associated metabolic disorders, and the built environment and its impact on health.
1. What fostered your interest in public health?
Public health is a practice-oriented discipline. Researchers’ responsibility extends beyond collecting and analyzing the data and publishing the results. I think the best part of being a public health researcher is that I can make a difference in the population or community I study. I enjoy participating in problem solving with our collaborators, such as formulating evidence-based strategies to address the health concern, evaluating effectiveness of the intervention we implemented, and reassessing the health concern to figure out the next steps.
2. How does the built environment of the Capital District contribute to disparities in obesity, smoking, and/or public health service utilization?
My built environment studies primarily focus on urban retail environment in the Capital District. In particular, I am interested in differences in aggregated availability of fresh fruits and vegetables and tobacco products among neighborhoods, and how these differences relate to health outcomes. In general, individuals living in neighborhoods with a low fresh produce availability and a high tobacco availability are more likely to be obese and smokers compared with individuals living in other neighborhoods, and this association still holds after controlling for differences in socio-demographic characteristics. But the relationship between the built environment and health is always reciprocal, and there are many other variables that influence health outcomes, so we need to be careful when interpreting the results.
I found that Albany’s tobacco environment is gradually improving in the last 15 years. The 2018 Albany County Legislation that banned tobacco sales at pharmacies had an additional impact on reducing tobacco availability, and I am happy to report that my tobacco environment research played a small role in the lobbying effort led by our alumni toward the legislation. For food environment improvement, my research indicates that working with existing small, independent stores to improve their fresh produce inventory is important, and SPH partner organizations, including the Albany County Department of Health and Capital Roots have been working on this effort through their healthy store programs. I also documented increasing ethnic grocery stores in Albany along lower Central avenue, and my analysis indicated that they’re contributing to increased availability of fresh produce in the surrounding low-income neighborhoods.
3. What research are you currently working on?
I am currently working on several collaborative projects. We’re investigating the association between traveling distance to food shopping sources and nutrition knowledge/behavior among Burmese refugees in the Capital District. We’re also examining the contextual influence of the density of tobacco retail outlets on smoking among adults with comorbid diabetes and mental health in New York State. These two projects involve doctoral students from my department. The third project is a collaborative project with faculty investigators from two other departments in the SPH and Johns Hopkins. My role in this project is to investigate potential health impacts of increased availability of fresh produce at food pantries through food recovery and redistribution. As a spin-off project of the above, we’re currently analyzing survey data to understand COVID-19’s impact on food-related behavior and food assistant program utilization among low-income adults in the Capital District.
4. Can you tell us a bit about your experience as the Director of Diabetes Surveillance and Evaluation and how it influenced your work at the SPH?
My position as the Director of Diabetes Surveillance and Evaluation at the New York State Department of Health was entirely funded by the CDC’s Division of Diabetes Translation. This division was very progressive in many ways. For instance, “translation” was added to its name in the early 1990s, long before the medical and scientific communities realized the importance of translational science. The division also pioneered in the “systems approach” to address diabetes. They pushed each state grantees to strengthen local collaboration and community outreach, and prioritize disadvantaged populations for improvement in diabetes education, prevention and care, and using “empowerment” as an important technique to achieve the goals. Additionally, a research grant I received from the CDC’s Prevention Research Center Program while I was at the DOH also directed me to focus on the built environmental as a potential cause as well as a solution to diabetes disparities. Because I was exposed to and trained in these areas, I was very prepared to take on community-engaged research at the SPH. I am currently one of a few faculty members in my department doing community-engaged research. I trained more than a dozen of graduate students in this area over the years.
5. What advice would you give a student interested in public health?
Take advantage of internships. Work at least two different levels of public health systems – at the national, state, or county/city levels, and also a non-profit organization. Also, take at least one advanced methodology/statistics course, and keep up with the latest methodological advances, such as graphic information systems and data visualization.