Walker wheels forward to address social disparities in health

Published by Emile Creel on

By Madeline Burdine 

Currently working out of the SSRC’s Canton, Mississippi, office,  Walker has worked at the SSRC at various levels since coming to Mississippi State University in 2011 to complete a master’s in psychology.  His time as a graduate research assistant,  research associate, and presently a project manager has primarily involved applied demographic research on the health and wellbeing of children and families in Mississippi.

“The overarching theme of my research interests is understanding and addressing social disparities in health and wellbeing,” said Walker.

Walker currently directs the data efforts on Mississippi KIDS COUNT, which is part of a national network of grantees in each state that collects data on economic well-being, health, family and community, and education.

“This project is really rewarding because I get to be part of building something that has become a comprehensive resource for data on Mississippi’s children,” said Walker. “We hear from people across Mississippi who use these data to evaluate policies, conduct research projects, and write funding proposals.”

Most of Walker’s time at the SSRC is spent working on the HRSA funded MS Thrive! project. The goal of MS Thrive! is to improve early developmental outcomes through the implementation of a statewide early childhood developmental health system and the development of an early childhood cross-systems workforce program.

“My role on this project is to work on collecting data which help us to understand the early risk factors that impact child development, where the gaps are in the healthcare system, and whether our efforts on the project are helping to move the needle in terms of child health and development,” Walker said.

Walker also works on the Kellogg funded Mississippi Data Project, a project which aims to deliver data concerning the health, education, and economic well-being of Mississippi’s children and families to Kellogg grantees and state agencies.

“This project is really challenging because it involves linking large amounts of state agency data,” said Walker, “but it is a great opportunity as these data uniquely positions us to answer research questions that are vital to improving child health in Mississippi.”

Additionally, Walker said he is motivated by his desire to document health disparities and advance our understanding of the ways that racism and socioeconomic factors work to create and maintain these disparities.

“It is well known that Mississippi lags behind the rest of the nation in health, but there are vast inequalities within Mississippi,” said Walker. “A child born today in Mississippi has a vastly different life expectancy based where they were born in the state. For example, the average life expectancy of a child born in Sunflower County is seven years shorter than a child born in Oktibbeha County. My hope is that the work that I do will help policymakers to address these types of fundamental inequalities.”

Walker’s desire to contribute to the wellbeing of children and families explains his change of plans to potentially stay long term in Mississippi, which is ground zero for many of the issues Walker researches daily.

“Studying population health requires an interdisciplinary approach,” said Walker. “This is really a strength in the way that the SSRC operates which makes it a great place to do this kind of work.”

Walker pays credit to mentors Dr. Colleen Sinclair, an Associate Professor in the Psychology department and a Research Fellow at the SSRC, and Dr. Linda Southward, who has recently retired from the SSRC after 30 years at MSU.

“Working in her (Dr. Colleen Sinclair) lab was demanding as a graduate student but highly rewarding as I honed a lot of important skills that I still draw on a daily basis,” said Walker.

In terms of Dr. Linda Southward, Walker spoke on her inspiring leadership ability.

“I really have her to thank for the opportunities that I have had during my time at the SSRC,” said Walker. “I feel really privileged to carry on and build upon the legacy that she built here.”

Walker is currently a PhD student in Sociology specializing in demography, and his dissertation focuses on trying to better understand the nature of growing rural-urban disparities in life expectancy in the United States.

As his studies continue to compliment his work with the SSRC, his contributions to Mississippi’s children and families are continuing the legacy left behind by SSRC greats that came before him.