Directed by Dr. Michelle Birkett, the CONNECT Complex Systems and Health Disparities Research Program, is focused around elucidating the complex mechanisms driving the health disparities of stigmatized populations, in particular gender and sexual minorities. CONNECT hopes to build research capacity in this area by strategically growing an interdisciplinary cadre of scholars addressing issues health disparities from a systems perspective.

Why Complex Systems and Health Disparities?

Understanding the drivers of health disparities within populations is extremely complex – particularly within stigmatized populations, such as sexual and gender minorities. Health disparities have been suggested to occur because of intersecting individual, relational, and environmental processes caused by stigma, but little is known about the exact pathways. A complicating factor is that these pathways are often difficult to measure due to nonlinear relationships as well as time-delayed effects. Therefore it has been suggested that a systems science perspective must be used.

The term “systems science” refers here to a perspective in which the problem space is conceptualized as a system of interrelated component parts (i.e., the “big picture”). A systems science approach to health disparities is a major paradigm shift from focusing on one specific pathway toward focusing on how the entire system fits together to produce health disparities in a particular population.

This work requires a shift away from traditional statistical association analyses toward complex modeling approaches that can account for this complexity. These approaches include simulation modeling, machine learning, and network analysis. However, new analytic techniques alone are unlikely to yield high impact findings. This innovative approach requires transdisciplinary collaborations between health researchers, with in-depth knowledge of the population and systems under investigation, and investigators at the forefront of innovative data collection and analytic techniques. For example, health disparities often manifest via multiple negative health outcomes such as the syndemic health burden of HIV, drug use, violence, and mental health problems faced by young men who have sex with men (YMSM). Accordingly, system-level approaches are required to accurately model, understand, and alter these interconnected health disparities.

Strategic Plan

A scientific research program around delineating the complex mechanisms that drive the health disparities of stigmatized populations will be built and strengthened through three interrelated foci:  1) building and supporting transdisciplinary research collaborations; 2) developing and fostering methods for the capture, integration, and analysis of rich social data (dynamic, multilevel, multiplex, relational/network, spatial, population-based surveillance, text, and social media) that are relevant to health; and 3) developing deeper theoretical understandings of stigma and the systemic production of health disparities within stigmatized populations, and applying this knowledge to shape new intervention strategies.

Activities which support collaborations across several analytic methodologies will be promoted, including network analysis, agent-based modeling, machine learning, natural language processing, and geospatial analysis. Furthermore, activities which connect across the Chicago and Evanston campuses, bringing health experts and community experts (e.g. CBOs, CDPH) into conversations with analytic experts, will be prioritized, as these connections will aid in data sharing, interpretation, and quicker implementation of findings.


In order to build cross-campus and cross-discipline connections, CONNECT sponsors 1-2 speakers per year at [email protected] – the Wednesday Speaker Series held at the Northwestern Institute of Complex Systems. Additionally, CONNECT hosts a livestream of all [email protected] talks in their office on the Chicago campus.

Affiliated Partners