When Maj. Vickee Wolcott, PhD ’15, arrived at the Smith School to work toward a doctoral degree, she had to hit the ground running. The Army was paying for the degree, and it allows soldiers only three years to complete what takes other students four or five years, or longer, to accomplish. “Basically, every class assignment, every paper I wrote worked its way into my dissertation,” she says.
Granted, the Army gets you used to performing under pressure. Wolcott’s 12-year career in the service has included a deployment near Khost, Afghanistan, where she helped to administer a combat support hospital. When helicopters arrived with patients, she would run from her office to carry litters bearing wounded soldiers or drive an ambulance, as needed.
For her dissertation, she tackled a problem that social scientists have long wrestled with: To what degree are bad health habits transmitted socially? It’s a trickier question than it seems at first because people choose their friends in part because they have things in common with them.
To untie the knot of cause and effect, Wolcott drew on a database of anonymized health records of all soldiers from 2011 through 2014, one that had been assembled by another soldier-academic. The key to her study was one noteworthy fact about the Army: It reassigns soldiers to new units every few years, a process that takes self-selection out of the equation.
The Army’s strict hierarchy also opened the door to exploring not just peer effects but the influence of superiors and subordinates on behavior, something other scholars had not even attempted.
What did she find? When soldiers were transferred, their weight, tobacco use, and levels of drinking were all influenced by the health cultures of their new units. Obesity was the most “contagious,” transmitted through peers and across all rank levels.
Tobacco use, in contrast, spread moderately through peers and less through subordinates and leaders. Alcohol use spread to peers and downward from superiors (but not up).
The dataset she drew on will continue to reside at the Smith School’s Center for Health Information and Decision Systems (CHIDS), serving as a resource for other scholars. The hope is that it will be constantly updated, and even expanded to include the other military branches.
Fostering good health cultures is a priority for the Army, where roughly a quarter of soldiers are classified as obese. Wolcott will build on her research project in her new job, working as an assistant professor at the Army-Baylor University Graduate Program in Health and Business Administration, which is located at Fort Sam Houston, in Texas.
She hopes that her work will alert soldiers that their health can be significantly shaped by the people around them. “More broadly, it will help the Army understand where good health cultures exist, and why,” Wolcott says. /CS/