Dayna Johnson

Co-InvestigatorDayna Johnson

What is your area of research or expertise that you bring to the landscape collaboration?

My area of expertise is in sleep epidemiology. I am a sleep epidemiologist. I have a PhD in epidemiology, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Sleep and Circadian Disorders, and I’ve been doing sleep research for a little over 12 years.

What do you find challenging or exciting about interdisciplinary collaboration?

What I find exciting is the different ways that people think about different research questions and the different approaches to answer the questions. For our project, we have experts from different disciplines, and we all bring a unique perspective. In my opinion, I find that interdisciplinary research is more impactful. Really in thinking about the diversity of views that result from interdisciplinary research, it can translate to different ways to ask questions, which questionnaires to include, and how to interpret the results, all of which contribute to the goal of understanding whatever association that we’re looking at. I find when you have more homogeneous groups, they tend to think the same. So if you have too many people from the same discipline, we’re applying the same approaches–we’re not being as novel or innovative. When you’re working with people from different disciplines, I find that it results in a more rigorous approach in terms of being innovative and novel.

 What’s one common misconception about sleep epidemiology that you’d like to dispel?

One common misconception is that classifying sleep is easy. People think you could just ask someone about their sleep duration only to classify sleep. I have to explain, No, that’s not exactly how this works. I think people tend to think about sleep as this one dimension, this behavior that we do every day, as opposed to thinking about it more as a physiological state that’s connected to daily activities during our wakefulness and our health, and our risk for disease. Sleep itself is a complex construct which is actually challenging to measure, and involves bringing several methods to the table. The myth is thinking it’s just an one-dimensional concept that’s easy to classify.

Do you have people who, when you tell them what you study, they say, can I tell you about my sleep problem? 

So today was the first day of my sleep epidemiology class. I always ask the first day about the students’ research interests and what brings them to the class and overwhelmingly the response is, Oh, I’m here because I have poor sleep, and I’m trying to figure out how to get better sleep! As a professor, I hope students think about sleep epidemiology as an actual discipline and are interested in learning about this topic to apply it to research. But, whatever brings them to the table to hear the information, I am glad they are there.  

Socially, when I say what I do,  people want to tell me their sleep stories. I am not bothered by that at all!  It’s always fascinating to hear people’s thoughts about it– before I started doing this research, I never really thought about my sleep, and I slept every day, but I didn’t think about it. Some people think about their meals, planning out their diet, reading labels, thinking about whether something is healthy or not. Another example is physical activity. How long am I exercising? What type of exercise is best for me? But with sleep people just think, okay, I’m going to sleep.  But sleep epidemiology gives me tools to understand the complexity of it, and I find myself noticing my own sleep patterns.

How did you become interested in structural racism and health?

Before I knew the term structural racism, I started thinking about these concepts. I grew up in Detroit, and I went to high school in the suburbs, and so there were stark differences in the environment in which I lived and the environment in which I went to school. In high school I was very interested in racism as a topic. I went to a predominantly white high school, and so race was a common topic. This was around the time that affirmative action was really coming into play with University of Michigan admissions. So there were lots of discussions around that.  And then, as I started to learn more, particularly in college. I started thinking more about structural reasons and learning more about historical reasons why health is shaped the way it is. This interest has evolved over time, becoming this firm concept when I was in grad school, when I actually learned about the terminology and started doing more reading about different policies and how racism really manifests across all these different systems to produce the neighborhoods in which we live, our policies, and so on. My interest was more refined, and a class that I took in grad school that was taught by Arline Geronimus. This class really emphasized historical relevance and how that shapes health inequities.

What’s the academic path that brought you to where you are now?

My undergrad degree was in psychology. I majored in psychology and pre medicine with an emphasis on biology, and my intention was to go to Med school. I went on several  med school interviews and at one of them I was describing what I wanted to do. I said, I want to understand why some people have diabetes more than others. At the time, I didn’t know about prevalence and incidence – epidemiology. I said I was particularly interested in understanding why black people have a higher rate of diabetes. And one of the people that were on the panel pulled me aside after, and said, I think what you’re really interested in is public health! So, by the time I had this conversation, most admissions were done for the year, but I was able to defer my admission and enroll at the University of Michigan in Public Health as a non degree student, and just take some courses. And so I did that. And I realized, these are my people! I like it here! I applied, and I was admitted into a dual program in social work and public health. I concentrated in community and social systems at the School of Social Work, where I was part of this fellowship where they place individuals in Detroit to learn in the community. We did some work in the areas that had the highest poverty in Detroit, which was an amazing experience to understand the perspective of others, and we were able to work with the community as opposed to studying the community.

I did Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan. I was really interested in health disparities at that point. Following that I worked for a while at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where I was part of the health disparities collaborative, and within my role I worked on an asthma management research study. It was a research study, and I remember asking questions, and saying things like I think we should really be asking this, or you know, I think we should do this analysis. The person who was the head of the lab, who was great, was an epidemiologist.  She told me, “You really need to get a PhD” She said it in the nicest mentoring way. So I decided to get a PhD in epidemiology. But I did not have a masters in Epi, so I enrolled in the masters of science program in epidemiology, did a year and was convinced that Epi was really the right program for me. Then I was admitted to the PhD program at Michigan in epidemiology, and I worked with Ana Diez-Roux and Lynda Lisabeth to study neighborhood, environment and cardiovascular disease. After my first year I heard a talk by Gary Gibbons on sleep and he mentioned sleep as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It was just one slide, but it was a big light bulb in my life. So, for my dissertation I chose to study neighborhood and psycho-social stressors, and how that contributes to poor sleep.

Then I went on and did a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Harvard Medical School. I was there for several years and really refined my Sleep Research skills. I actually learned how to measure sleep. In my PhD program, I was being trained as an epidemiologist. I knew how to run analyses, and how to use validated questionnaires. But in my post doc I really learned about how to actually measure sleep from an objective standpoint, how to interpret sleep studies and incorporate that into population level studies. After postdoctoral training, I went on faculty there and then came to Emory on faculty. That’s my story.

If you had the opportunity to get one question answered by an omniscient being, what would you ask?

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. I think I would ask how I could be all knowing.

How can I know all things to solve all problems? I think that would be my question. It’s just like a magical power that you could have, and then that way you can solve everything! 

Is there anything else you want to share?

You asked about how my interest in structural racism evolved.  My interest has always been in the neighborhood environment and understanding the root cause of how our neighborhoods are shaped, and the different features and characteristics that people are exposed to, and how that can fundamentally either promote or hinder our sleep. It’s really interesting, and particularly because it is modifiable, our environment. But understanding the root causes – how upstream factors lead to downstream factors and health is where my interest lies.