Celebrating 20 Years of Inspiring the Next Generation of Health Services Researchers

Ahmed Whitt, PhD, SUMR '07

Ahmet Whitt, PhD

Ahmed Whitt, PhD, SUMR '07

Now an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, it was as a teenager that Ahmed Whitt, PhD, MSW, first began noticing the neighborhood details that would later become his life's work.

"Growing up in Philadelphia definitely exposed me to issues of income and health disparities," explained the 2007 SUMR Scholar. As a Masterman High School student, he casually noticed how the availability of recreational facilities for teenagers varied greatly from neighborhood to neighborhood throughout the city and pondered why that was. "Back then, I was thinking about what we now call 'built environments' long before I knew that was an area of scientific study. I could just see it all around me and I wondered why these differences existed."

His nascent interest in understanding the community reality of racial disparities was further enhanced by his many visits to his parents' workplaces. Both were civil service workers; his mother in the welfare department, his father in the juvenile justice system. Their offices were just a few blocks from his school.

In his senior year at Penn, Whitt saw a flier about the SUMR program, applied and was accepted. "I can't say that I knew where my career was going at that time and I was not aware of what health services research was," he said. "SUMR changed my life by enabling me to understand HSR and generalize a career path through it. During my SUMR internship I picked up geographic information systems and spatial statistics that became the foundation of my career and that opened up more doors to me. Among other things, the relationships I formed with SUMR mentors allowed me to understand the role of mentorship -- some of those mentors remain in my life even all these years later."

Whitt graduated Penn with a BA degree and stayed to pursue a Masters in Social Work degree from Penn's School of Social Policy & Practice. He went on to earn his PhD in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His 114-page doctoral dissertation was entitled "The Impact of the Urban Built Environment on Adolescent Depression: A Multilevel Analysis of a Nationally-Representative Sample."

In it, the former teenager who once wandered Philadelphia's neighborhoods wondering about the differences he witnessed there, wrote, "Characteristics of the neighborhood social environment, particularly lack of cohesion between neighbors, are key predictors of disproportionally high rates of adolescent depression in urban areas, particularly economically distressed inner-city communities. The physical environment directly influences the relationship between neighborhood social factors and adolescent mental health by altering individual and family protective behaviors. The social characteristics indirectly elevate the level of psychological distress in children by reducing perceptions of safety and general well-being in children and their guardians."