It takes a village to understand a neighborhood: On the interdisciplinarity of research

Dr. Wizdom Powell speaking at a podium

Wizdom Powell, PhD, giving the IAAR Faculty Fellows Lecture at the Stone Center

written by Yesenia Merino, OUR Outreach Coordinator


Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of attending a lecture given by Dr. Wizdom Powell, UNC Institute for African American Research (IAAR) Faculty Fellow and Associate Professor in the Department of Health Behavior. Her talk, given in the beautiful UNC Stone Center, was entitled “They Can’t Breathe: Why Neighborhoods Matter for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Outcomes Among Emerging Adult African American Men,” and detailed the work that has informed her current project looking at how communities impact the lived experiences of African American men in Durham, NC.


Studies like the one Dr. Powell described remind me of the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration and all the potential points of entry for someone looking to get involved in research available within a single project. While the researcher in me was enthralled with the details of her work given its salience in the current sociopolitical climate in and around UNC, the part of me that strives to see things from the perspective of someone outside of academia was astounded at the sheer scope and size of her work. She began her project by trying to understand the neighborhood environment – a step that involved collaborating with Dr. Debra Furr-Holden at Johns Hopkins University to learn how to spot and measure signs of substance use or social disorder at the neighborhood level – then went on to recount her collaborations with a developer that could turn their data collection form into a smartphone app, a designer to help brand the project, a team of students to collect the data, and countless other experts and stakeholders providing input into the process.


team of researchers standing together

Dr. Powell’s Men’s Health Research Lab Team (from left to right): Leslie Adams, Andre Brown, Tamera Taggart, Wizdom Powell, Jennifer Richmond, Tainayah Thomas

As Dr. Powell waxed poetic about the importance of student researchers in executing a study of this magnitude (as well as the need for more students interested in the project moving forward), how much she learned from them in addition to them learning from her expertise, the OUR Outreach Coordinator in me naturally thought about what kind of undergraduate might be a good fit for this study:

  • Art majors – to help develop the study branding or help analyze the deeper meanings behind some of visual aspects of community
  • Geography majors – to help map out (and make sense of) all the components of the neighborhood that constitute the Durham community
  • History and political science majors – to help situate the findings from the data within the social-political-historical context that has made Durham what it is today
  • Social science majors – to help unpack the lived experiences of African American men in Durham
  • Statistics and computational biology majors – to help analyze the data necessary to draw conclusions about how neighborhood factors impact the health and well-being of participants
  • Computer science majors – to help leverage existing technologies and develop new solutions (e.g. a smartphone app that can serve as a mental health intervention as Dr. Powell mentioned)
  • Countless others I haven’t thought of…

The fact of the matter is that studies like the one Dr. Powell discussed are looking to tackle big issues and thus necessitate many different perspectives in order to find a way through what Dr. Powell affectionately calls “wicked problems.” At an elite research institution like UNC, the question is not so much if there are opportunities for you to conduct research in your field as it is a matter of finding a research opportunity that fits your interests.


Getting Involved
If you’re interested in working in Dr. Powell’s Men’s Health Research Lab, please email or For other research opportunities,