Erin Pullen came to the IU Network Science Institute in 2015 from the University of Kentucky, Lexington, where she worked as an assistant professor. She received both her PhD and Master’s degrees in Sociology from the University of Kentucky.
Pullen’s research is primarily egocentric and focuses on medical sociology and health disparities. She works to understand how personal social networks, health behaviors, and health outcomes influence each other, especially among the disadvantaged. Her recent work covers everything from oral health in Mexican-American immigrants (for which she won an award in 2019) to reducing the stigma of mental illness among college students.
Below, learn more about how Pullen hopes to have a positive effect on people with her research and what she plans to work on next.
Q: Why did you decide to come to IU?
I was definitely lured by the professional opportunities here and the chance to be part of a completely new institute focused on one of my primary areas of research–social networks. Part of the draw of coming to IU was also the brilliant scholars here. I worked under the direction of Brea Perry (IUB Sociology) when I was in graduate school and the experience was transformative for me. Both she and Bernice (Pescosolido, IUB Sociology) are titans of the field, so the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from them was really, really compelling. IU also happens to have a well-respected and highly-ranked Department of Sociology with a strong emphasis on medical sociology, and in particular, the kind of medical sociology that I’m interested in. The research scientist position opened here at a time when I was ready for a change, so there was a timing element involved too.
Q: Where does your research focus?
I would say that broadly my work focuses on understanding the reciprocal relationship between chronic health problems and networks. From a methodological standpoint, my research tends to use survey and egocentric network data, and I am very invested in research design and ethics–ensuring that social science and network research are done in a scientifically rigorous way to answer important questions, primarily focused on the health of disadvantaged or stigmatized populations.
After finishing my PhD, I was very drawn to mental health and substance use research, but since I’ve been here, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate on a variety of projects emphasizing different aspects of health and well-being. So my research has expanded since I’ve come here, which I enjoy. I’m very intellectually curious, so learning about new areas of research and broadening my thinking on health, well-being, and social relationships has been very welcome.
Q: Why do you think this research is important?
For me, it’s important that I feel like what I’m doing helps people, either by contributing to our understanding of health problems that hopefully yields insights that can help people lead healthier lives or by focusing on marginalized populations. I like to think that the work I do helps people and that’s part of the reason I chose to focus on health. Health is relevant to every single person and–good or bad–shapes our life trajectories in really important ways.
I was lucky enough to have two fantastic mentors in graduate school who study health, Brea and Carrie Oser, so I received encouragement from them and had access to health data. I also happen to come from a family of health care providers, including my mother and several aunts, and I recognized early on the value of good health. Understanding how people manage their health, how they navigate the challenges of living with a chronic illness, the ways stigma and prejudice shape well-being–these questions are pertinent now and will continue to be long into the future.
Q: What are some projects you’re working on now?
Right now I’m working on a project with Brenda Heaton from Boston University, and we’re looking at women living in housing developments and the ways networks shape their oral and general health. I’m also working on a project that includes principal investigator Karla Wagner at the University of Nevada and Hank Green (IUB Public Health) that looks at networks, beliefs, and behavior related to HIV among a racially diverse sample of women.
I have a project with IU sociology graduate students Emily Ekl and Christopher Turner looking at general social service data and how having networks with people who have mental illness can influence your views of mental illness. I’m also analyzing data from the College Toolbox Project.
I recently applied for a grant with an anthropologist based in New York, Melissa Basil, where we propose examining the influence of support and other networks on treatment adherence and mental health outcomes among people with cystic fibrosis.
Q: That is quite the variety of projects. Do you enjoy the spread?
Absolutely. Part of what I love about this job is that I get to work on such a diversity of things. I’m able to do this, in part, because I’m not splitting my time between teaching and a large amount of service obligations that faculty housed in departments manage. Though I appreciate the value of routine, I also like having day-to-day variability and being exposed to new ideas and ways of thinking. It’s challenging, but intellectually stimulating.
Read more of Erin’s recent work:
- Elaine Hernandez, Erin Pullen, and Jonathan Brauer. 2019. “Social Networks and the Emergency of Health Inequalities Following a Medical Advance: Examining Prenatal H1N1 Vaccination Decisions.” Social Networks 58: 156-167. DOI: 10.1016/j.socnet.2019.03.002.
- Carrie Oser, Kathi Harp, Erin Pullen, Amanda Bunting, Danelle Stevens-Watkins, & Michele Staton. 2019. “African American Women’s Tobacco and Marijuana Use: The Effects of Social Context, Substance Use Beliefs, and Risk Perceptions.” Substance Use & Misuse 54(6): 873-884. DOI: 10.1080/10826084.2018.1528464.
- Erin Pullen, Brea Perry, and Gerardo Maupomé. 2019. “Talking About Teeth: The Effects of Egocentric Network Characteristics on Oral Health Outcomes in a Mexican-American Immigrant Community.” Advances in Medical Sociology 19: 205-122. DOI: 10.1108/S1057-629020190000019006.