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Professor Profile: Loni Philip Tabb, Assistant Professor Biostatistics

Professor Loni Philip Tabb

November 18, 2016


Being a supermodel. I’d see Iman—all these women – and I’d say I want to do what they do. They looked so confident. That was my childhood ambition.


I was a YMCA camp counselor. It was so fun – my first job at age 14.


My parents. They’re immigrants. Came to this country with nothing. Mom is from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Dad is from Grenada. I was born here in Philadelphia at Pennsylvania Hospital….


My proudest moment would have to be obtaining my PhD… In my family on my mother’s or father’s side, all of my cousins are first generation college graduates. So when I got my bachelor’s and my masters that was one thing, but PhD was uncharted territory. My parents were there when I defended my thesis… My thesis was “Building Complex Models for Complex Data.” It was applied to environmental as well as health and social disparities.


I’m too short for modeling, and too tall for gymnastics… I was getting my training in math I knew that teaching would be an obvious choice because I liked to explain to people very complicated, quantitative things. In public health I can use my quantitative skills to address issues I see on a day-to-day basis, in my family, with respect to violence – or cardiovascular disease. Public health incorporates all those things and I felt that I could use my math and my statistical training to contribute to addressing these issues.


Spatial statistics and spatial epidemiology. Not only am I able to measure various things, like health and social disparities, so we can be more informed to know where to target interventions. A number is nice – but putting it into context of maps too – in terms of where people live, where they work, where people are – that’s my bread and butter.

“In order for us to tackle some of the most pressing issues that face our public’s health – we have to be very creative and consider unorthodox ways of addressing problems.”

Health is something that doesn’t operate in a black box. It is very fluid, in terms of the environment people are in. That’s why there is a stroke belt: there are certain things that are very specific to where those states are, the types of food, the air, the cultural norms… So using maps allows one to tell more of a complete story – instead of just numbers. People want to know: If I work here, live here, raise my family here, what’s going on around me? … What are the environmental factors in play in terms of where I am?


I’ve been looking at availability of alcohol and it’s linkage to violence in neighborhoods. I am from the inner city, and I grew up where you might have access to “forties” (40 ounce bottles of beer) and different types of alcohol – but not fresh fruits and vegetables… I recently looked at links between alcohol and violence in Seattle because they privatized. Pennsylvania is one of few states left to potentially privatize and get out of state-run alcohol distribution…I know that neighborhoods that have more alcohol tend to have an increase in violence… The key was to look at this relationship over time – to see if the same relationship I’d seen before between alcohol and violence persisted – or even got worse – in a state that privatized and had more alcohol outlets. And that was the case. Even though I cannot definitely say that increasing numbers of alcohol outlets because of this policy are the only cause of escalating violence, it is more than just chance. And especially in neighborhoods that are characterized as being more disadvantaged and more diverse… I knew it was important for me to at least assess this relationship in Seattle because policymakers here in Pennsylvania who have an eye on implementing something like this can use as much information as possible. [My work] was timely: Seattle implemented privatization in 2012, and I said let’s look back two years, and then track for the next two years, and see if this relationship [between increased availability of alcohol and violence] persists. And it did. Those neighborhoods that had an increase particularly a significant increase – in alcohol availability – those same neighborhoods have more violence…


The research confirmed what I knew – and what the literature has shown. What’s interesting, is that when Washington implemented the policy, they restricted the size of places that can sell alcohol to 10,000 square-foot retailers – not small bodegas. Retail outlets like BJ’s lobbied for the measure, and now they can sell alcohol… A BJ’s is very different from a mom and pop store. States like Pennsylvania should consider this, because there are already lots of small outlets in Philadelphia that are in violation of existing zoning laws – too close to schools, places of worship, etc. If we were to raise the square footage requirements, so that only big stores can sell alcohol, it would help. For Washington State, having that caveat in their policy seems to work.


In order for us to tackle some of the most pressing issues that face our public’s health – we have to be very creative and consider unorthodox ways of addressing problems. At the very least, it has to involve all different types of people who have the same goals, but come from different walks of life, with different training, focuses and languages… One of the reasons I got out of math. It was not collaborative. But in biostatistics I can collaborate with doctors, nurses, community health professionals, with ministers from churches…

If you are always around people who look, walk and talk just like you, you don’t get exposed to fresh ideas and your work moves very slowly. And we don’t have time. People are dying. Communities are failing, people are suffering and time is not really on our side, so we need to makes sure we are as efficient as possible, and really come together and be interdisciplinary. My advice to those coming up as public health professionals is just that.


My family – my husband, and my two children. [Daughter Madison, age 4, and son Chandler turned two in September.] That’s my away-from-work everything.