Religion, public health come together for BU researcher

Dr. Jeff Levin and his wife, Dr. Lea Steele, are both epidemiologists at Baylor. Levin is considered the “Father of the Epidemiology of Religion.” (Courtesy Photo)

Dr. Jeff Levin and his wife, Dr. Lea Steele, are both epidemiologists at Baylor. Levin is considered the “Father of the Epidemiology of Religion.” (Courtesy Photo)
Dr. Jeff Levin and his wife, Dr. Lea Steele, are both epidemiologists at Baylor. Levin is considered the “Father of the Epidemiology of Religion.” (Courtesy Photo)
By Linda Nguyen
A&E Editor

Baylor is home to renowned researchers and scholars. Scattered around the university, they produce research and papers, many of which define their fields.

One such scholar is Dr. Jeff Levin, University Professor of epidemiology and population health. His research looks at how religion affects public health and he is considered by some as the “Father of Epidemiology and Religion.”

Levin came to Baylor in 2009 with an appointment at the Institute for the Studies of Religion.

“What’s unique about my position here, I’m trained in biomedical sciences and in health,” Levin said. “I function as a social scientist but my background is in the humanities. What’s unique about here, I do medical research but I work in an institute with sociologists.”

He said being at Baylor has been a great fit for him and his research.

“I appreciate there are few places, maybe Baylor is it, where I can conduct with the research I do with the colleagues I do, focused on religion,” Levin said.

Levin said his current research has three main foci: analyzing data from global health surveys to identify religious determinants of physical and mental health, studying healing and the work of healers and outlining the public policy implications of faith-based resources for the public health sector.

He said part of his research involves working with larger data sets.

“I’ve been working on these huge data sets,” Levin said. “I haven’t done real data collection. Especially the last couple years. I’ve done a number of analyses of data.”

His research with healers is something he said has always been one of his interests.

“Healers. I’ve known a lot of these folks, interviewed a lot of these folks,” Levin said. “Maybe they are healers, maybe they aren’t but it’s been really fascinating. I’ve written some historical pieces on healing.”

His third main area of focus looks at the more political, policy-oriented side of research. He looks at the public policy implications for faith in public health.

“I’ve written some public policy-oriented pieces trying to promote the idea that religious organizations, religious institutions have something to offer to strength the public health infrastructure of health,” Levin said.

In his time at Baylor, Levin has published several scientific articles as well as two books. He has mentored many honors thesis students through their projects.

“Each of the last several years I’ve had an honors student,” Levin said.

Honors program director Dr. Andrew Wisely said Levin has been a great honors thesis director for many students.

“I think he’s a great director to get for a thesis although both he and his wife need to protect their research time,” Wisely said. “But I know they enjoy working with students, and I think students could sit down with either one of them and come away with a list of books off his head or her head that would get them a great jump into any topic having to do with their epidemiological specialty.”

Levin said he enjoys working with the students.

“In fact, that’s the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been at Baylor, working on honors theses,” Levin said.

Brownsville Master’s candidate Cindy Salazar worked with Levin through her undergraduate Honors Thesis, and he was on her committee throughout the process for her Master’s Thesis.

“He’s been a great mentor,” Salazar said. “He’s led me in what I’m doing.”

Salazar said she first heard about him after reading one of his books in another class. When one of her professors connected her with him, she was excited to work with him.

“When I got connected with him, it was amazing,” Salazar said. “He’s never been unpleasant to work with. He’s hard, he expects a bit. He pushes you to be more.”

Salazar said he always takes time to ask her about where she is through her doctoral applications and where she is in life.

“It was a very fostering experience,” she said. “He lets you do as you can to reach your capacity. I see him as more of a mentor.”

She also said he’s very humble as an academic. He focused on his students learning the process of conducting research and the thesis process.

“After my thesis, we started working on the manuscript,” Salazar said. “He didn’t care whether his name was on it or not. That was an eye-opener. Even my thesis, I tried to cite him because he’s so important in my field but he cares more about the substance.”

Dr. Larry Dossey, internal medicine doctor and New York Times bestselling author, said he has worked with Levin throughout his career.

“We go back about 20 years,” Dossey said. “I have written several books of the role of spirituality and health. One of my books was about healing which wound up in the New York Times bestseller list. That book brought me and Jeff together. It was almost an automatic friendship as far as professional and personal interests are concerned.”

Dossey said he has termendous respect for Levin.

“He is one of those rare individuals who has almost single-handedly created a field of interest in academia,” Dossey said.

He said Levin’s success in academia is well-deserved.

“He’s one of the most courageous people I’ve bumped into in my professional life.” Dossey said. “He began to research the correlations between spiritual practices and health and longevity long before anyone knew those correlations existed.”

Dossey said one of Levin’s key qualities is his huge heart and generous support for other people.

Medical Humanities
Levin is also a professor of medical humanities. Dr. Lauren Barron, clinical professor and associated director of medical humanities, has worked with Levin through the department.

“He writes prolifically on the intersection of faith and health,” Barron said. “The fact that we have this renowned scholar right in the middle of Baylor who’s doing extremely influential work in the field of religion and health; it’s extraordinary to have a scholar of his caliber at Baylor. His books and his writing are just fundamental to this concept of how spirituality affects health.”

She described him as charming and intelligent. She said he is a pioneer in the field of epidemiology and religion.

“I guess something that sums him up is his willingness to come speak to my class and share,” Barron said. “He’s generous with his experiences and expertise. And in a way that’s engaging and exciting. He’s very unique and I think his presence at Baylor is an amazing gift.”

Barron said unlike many other professors at Baylor, she does not hold a Ph.D. but rather an MD and she said sometimes, scholars of his caliber aren’t the best communicators.

“There are times when brilliant scholars may not at ease with those of us who are not,” Barron said. “He strikes me as someone who loves people and looks for ways to help share his experience and expertise.”

Barron said the first time she had lunch with him, she went in intimidated by his accomplishments and academic stature, but that was immediately gone when she met him.

“He was extraordinarily warm, engaging, chatty, relaxed, passionate,” she said. “He was warm and kind and interested in the program and very generous in his willingness to share his work and expertise.”

Personal Life
Along with his accomplishments in academia, he has also found a way to balance family life and work.

“That’s not a challenge,” Levin said. “My wife is also on staff here, Dr. Lea Steele. We’re a two-epidemiologist-family. I think for both of us, our work is very important to us. The fact that we’re both epidemiologists, I don’t have to compartmentalize work and home. It’s not a challenge. I love being a professor.”

Dr. Lea Steele, research professor of biomedical studies, said he has eclectic interests inside and outside of academia.

“He is funny and he’s just so smart,” Steele said. “He’s very unique in the way he thinks about things. He’s definitely outside the box in how he approaches intellectual, personal challenges. He’s got a lot of interests. He’s a film buff. He just knows a lot about a lot of things. He’s knows a lot about country music. I think of him as mostly an intellectual but he has great instincts in a lot of areas.”

She said she hopes Levin’s unique career path will inspire students.

“I think it will help students,” Steele said. “Because students don’t really know there are fields you go into that can reconcile and allow you to pursue how science and faith are connected.”

She said being at Baylor has been a great opportunity for Levin to pursue the kind of work he’s interested in.

“This is unique in the world,” Steele said. “It’s the only place where you get scholars in different disciplines look at their disciplines as it compares to faith. All kinds of great scholars. The Institute for the Studies of Religion is such a great place for his love.”

Academic Background
Levin graduated from Duke University and went to University of North Carolina Chapel Hill to study epidemiology in graduate school. He said the origins of his research over religion and public health stemmed from a term paper in a class on social and cultural factors in health.

“I recalled seeing a few studies about religion and public health in medical literature,” Levin said. “I thought this was fascinating, so I took the whole semester and I found about a dozen of these papers. The professor said, ‘This is interesting, you ought to write it up as an article for a journal.’”

Levin said he then went back to the library to search the literature again to ensure he hadn’t forgotten anything.

“I started searching the literature,” he said. “I found more and more studies. Over the next four to five years, I would go to the library. In 1987, I had discovered over 200 of these studies, wrote it all up and ended up sending it to a medical journal. This was the first literature review that suggested religion was related to health. That kind of got me started.”

He said he didn’t set out to find this field, but he is glad to have been able to contribute.

“I think I played a part in stimulating interest,” Levin said. “It’s a part of science now. It’s been rewarding to think I contributed to this. There’s also a helpful and inspiring message. The ideas you have and the research you do can potentially create a field that other people will gravitate to. Decades down the road, there could be a new field of study. In a way, this is how science and biomedicine advance. It’s kind of been rewarding. That’s how it starts, as a graduate student who wrote up a term paper.”

He said initially, his research was met with a level of controversy, however he doesn’t think that’s the case anymore.

“After more than 4,000 studies in this field, I don’t think the controversy is a big deal,” Levin said. “Early on, I guess for me, I just ignored it. The hardest thing was getting our studies reviewed by journals. We live in a time now of medicine and mind-body medicine and advances in the study of medicine. There has now been a generation or two of scientists that have been trained in epidemiology and sociology and psychology.”

Levin said for now, he’s focusing on his third foci of research.

“For me, the whole public policy angle, the third area, I want to continue to evolve my work to look at public policy implications,” Levin said.

He said he would like to be involved in the public policy making process in Washington.

“I want my work to count for something other than a long list of publications,” Levin said. “I want to reach people with decision making authority. It’s kind of exciting. I want to help try to continue to contribute to that process. If my work can interface with that world, then fantastic. I’m also completely content at Baylor. I have the best academic position in the country.”

Levin said if he had a piece of advice to give to students he would say to “follow your heart.”

“Once one is in graduate or medical school, there will be opportunities to decide what kind of specialty; follow your heart and see what you’re drawn to,” Levin said. “This is a decision that will affect you for the rest of your life. It should be something that energizes you so even if you weren’t a doctor, you’d what to read about. The same thing when it comes to research. Pick a topic that hasn’t been researched to death. It’s easy to pick a subject where there’s a huge infrastructure down. Follow your heart. It’s your life.”