It became clear to Jungeun Olivia Lee as a young child that some things in life just weren’t fair.
She saw how her aunt struggled as a divorced single mother to raise four sons in an impoverished neighborhood where health care largely consisted of a traditional healer who induced vomiting.
She saw the looks of pity and empathy from strangers when she visited a park or a playground with her brother, who has a physical disability.
Why did some people, through no fault of their own, have to battle social inequalities such as poverty and a lack of preventive health care?
Why in the world are some people like my aunt, who is such a fantastic and affectionate and caring mom, suffering like this?
Jungeon Olivia Lee
“Why in the world are some people like my aunt, who is such a fantastic and affectionate and caring mom, suffering like this?” she asked. “My brother is just my brother, but somehow he is seen as different than everyone else.”
A personal passion
Driven by a desire to find solutions to those problems, Lee pursued a career in the social sciences, eventually moving to the United States to earn a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a Ph.D. in social welfare from the University of Washington.
Having recently joined the USC School of Social Work as an assistant professor, Lee is continuing to tackle major social problems that affect vulnerable populations across generations, including poverty, substance abuse and health.
“Right now we are living in an exciting period,” she said. “Researchers have the capacity to provide a scientific foundation for our efforts in social work.”
During her work as a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Social Development Research Group, Lee delved into two main areas of inquiry. The first focused on the etiology of health, particularly behavioral and mental health. The second dealt with social inequalities such as poverty and low socioeconomic status across generations.
Breaking the cycle
As she settles into her new role at USC, Lee is interested in combining those two pillars to explore health disparities that persist from one generation to another.
“How are we going to break that continuity of social disadvantages among these vulnerable populations?” she asked.
In her recent work, Lee focused on teen pregnancy, using data from a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of young mothers and their children for approximately 20 years. The study collected a wealth of information, including data on substance use, mental health, physical health, educational attainment, social environmental factors and parenting.
When examining the influence of socioeconomic status on their health and their children’s health, Lee reached some surprising conclusions.
“A lot of people think their life course trajectory is decided,” she said of teen mothers. “That is not the case. After 20 years, their lives are very different.”
Education is key
One major factor that influenced outcomes was educational attainment. Helping teen mothers finish their high school education can have a dramatic effect on their lives, Lee said.
“That was awesome to see,” she said. “We should not penalize them. If they can get enough support and go back to school, it’s going to help their future.”
She also noted that children of teen mothers are not necessarily relegated to negative life outcomes such as teen pregnancy or any other health risk behaviors. As with their mothers, their life trajectories are very different. Lee hopes to bring data from that study to USC and is currently writing a grant proposal to conduct another wave of data collection, in addition to surveying a new cohort of teen mothers. She is interested in exploring how health literacy affects teen pregnancy and health disparities in immigrant populations.
Many immigrants struggle to access health care due to issues such as low health literacy, she said. They may find simply enrolling in health insurance troublesome, given the complex jargon and length of the enrollment process.
“If you are a single mom and you have multiple jobs, you may have one hour and you don’t have high-speed Internet at home,” she said. “So you go to the library and sit in front of a computer and start putting in all of this sensitive information, but it’s very likely that you won’t be able to enroll in a single visit.”
She ultimately hopes to develop health literacy training for clients or interventions at the organizational or policy level that will help service providers and government agencies ensure that individuals are able to access the care they need.
A strong pull
Lee said the large Korean immigrant population in Los Angeles drew her to the position at USC. She was also intrigued by the school’s strong emphasis on science and the ability of social work to effect change, in addition to the university’s overall focus on interdisciplinary research.
I have a million different angles to my research, and I can always name at least two different people who have a certain perspective on the same issue.
Jungeon Olivia Lee
“I have a million different angles to my research, and I can always name at least two different people who have a certain perspective on the same issue,” she said.
Beyond faculty collaboration, Lee is also excited to begin engaging with students, both in the classroom and her research lab. As the instructor of a research methods course this semester, she said her experience thus far has bolstered her belief in science as a solution to social problems.
“After spending so many years in one area, you might start to feel a little low energy, but when you meet with students, they are so bright and excited,” she said. “It’s so inspiring, and I feel totally rejuvenated.”