New Projects, New Tools, and a New Focus on COVID’s Most Vulnerable Populations

April 9 @ 10:09 pm
By Ana Leon Santos & Jane Waldfogel

In this post for our special series on social work research during and after COVID, the Columbia Population Research Center (CPRC) shares lessons learned and some new directions and priorities for its current and post-COVID research agenda. CPRC supports population health researchers across Columbia University, galvanizing new interdisciplinary and cross-campus collaborations, promoting the professional development of junior scientists, and enabling members to do work that is more innovative and impactful.


The shift from our physical space to a virtual setting led us to reinvent how we build connections and conduct the center’s programming. In the early months of the pandemic, we moved all our seminars, meetings, and conferences to Zoom so that our programming continued uninterrupted. We also convened a COVID working group to discuss data collection challenges and to explore how we could support CPRC members in conducting new research to meet this moment.

While many primary data collection activities were put on hold, our members quickly moved to develop new projects and tools that could facilitate data-driven decisions. For example, in the health area, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics Dani Dimitriui and her team gathered some of the first evidence on babies born to COVID-exposed mothers and will continue to follow those children and mothers in the coming years.

At the School of Social Work, the Robin Hood Poverty Tracker research team gathered evidence on consequences of the pandemic, on outcomes ranging from food hardship and pantry use to anti-Asian discrimination in NYC.

Seeding new research on COVID’s most vulnerable populations

The need to understand the experiences of individuals and families, particularly those most vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, quickly became a priority within our Columbia-wide community of researchers. To address gaps in rapid-response startup funding, CPRC awarded nine seed grants with a focus on inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and policies to mitigate those inequalities. The projects we are funding are in critical areas ranging from access to reproductive health services for immigrant women to anti-Asian discrimination and food insecurity. For example, CSSW Assistant Professor Samantha Winter is conducting a pilot web-based psychoeducation training that aims to alleviate the mental health consequences of the pandemic for community leaders in informal settlements in Rio de Janeiro and Nairobi.

Collectively the grant awards are intended to inform current policies as well as set the foundation for future research that informs how we address inequities moving forward.

Refocusing our research on reducing inequalities

While the effects of systemic racism on the well-being of those experiencing racism and discrimination are not new, population research has largely focused on documenting disparities instead of examining the systemic roots of these disparities and how they can be eliminated. The disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on communities of color, rooted in systemic racism, refocused our research on reducing inequalities.

Under the leadership of CSSW Associate Professor Carmela Alcántara, Mallya Professor of Women and Economics at Barnard Elizabeth Ananat, and Mailman School of Public Health Assistant Professor Seth Prins, CPRC is supporting a research environment that moves beyond documenting disparities to studying anti-racist policies and programs. As a starting point, our cross-cutting group on inequalities convened a mini-conference at the end of last year titled “Racism and Health: Moving Beyond Documenting Health Disparities to Anti-Racist Health Research.” Through these and other discussions, a framework has emerged for conducting anti-racist health research.

The disproportionate negative impact of the pandemic on communities of color, and the effects of systemic racism on health disparities, will not be erased by the reduction in the spread of the virus. Therefore, supporting anti-racist research, and ensuring the research produced by our community leads to anti-racist policies that reduce inequalities, will continue to be a priority for CPRC.


Ana León-Santos is the program manager for the Columbia Population Research Center. Jane Waldfogel is the Compton Foundation Centennial Professor for the Prevention of Children’s and Youth Problems and the co-director of the Columbia Population Research Center.