Clinical Scholars Share Family Ties and a Passion for Social Research

    • January 24, 2010

Dimitri and Nicholas Christakis can proudly count many firsts among their achievements in recent years. The physician brothers have broken new ground in their respective fields of research; they have found unique ways to apply the wisdom gained in clinical practice to addressing difficult social and public health questions. And, they’ve uncovered surprising lessons about how our behavior—as parents, spouses, children, neighbors and friends—affects our well-being.

As participants in several scholar programs and as family members, Dimitri and Nicholas are also unique among the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) scholars. Nicholas Christakis, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., an internist and professor of medicine and medical sociology at Harvard Medical School, is a 1991-93 RWJF Clinical Scholar, 2000 recipient of an RWJF Investigator Award in Health Policy Research and now an advisor to the Investigator program. Dimitri Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., a researcher at Seattle Children’s Hospital, is a 1996-98 RWJF Clinical Scholar and a 1999-2004 RWJF Generalist Physician Faculty Scholar.

Before beginning his pioneering work on social networks, Nicholas’ research concentrated on ways to improve end-of-life care and the role of prognosis in medicine. But it was his training during the RWJF Clinical Scholar program that helped him advance his theory of how social interaction affects health. “My time as a Clinical Scholar was crucial,” he said. “I was trained to think about the theory of social networks and the statistical methods needed to study them. It was also important at such a formative period in my life to have two years to focus on fundamental ideas.”

His study showing that behaviors and emotions can be spread among friends and family made him one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2009 and contributed to the publication of his book, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, (Little Brown & Company, 2009), co-authored with James Fowler, Ph.D. In addition to his work on social networks, Nicholas investigates how people become sick, the ways in which they seek treatment and the effectiveness of certain types of care. He examines physicians’ responses to instances of medical harm, how neighborhoods affect health and the demographics of longevity.

During his term as an RWJF Clinical Scholar, Dimitri was encouraged to look at child health in new ways. “I began my work as a Clinical Scholar to promote child health, focusing on improving outcomes for children in the medical system,” Dimitri explained. But he found his true inspiration in the eyes of his infant son. “In 1998, I took off from work to be with my newborn son and I observed him watching TV. This sparked my interest in why he was watching and also coincided with a boom in educational TV programming for babies.” Dimitri found that many preschoolers were watching almost five hours of TV a day, “almost half of their waking hours,” he said.

After determining that the time babies and toddlers were spending in front of the TV were detrimental to their health and development, Dimitri created a home-based, community-based research model to study how to modify parental behavior to reduce TV time for kids. “I found that with babies, time spent watching TV displaces time with parents,” he explained. “We found that this resulted in fewer conversations with caregivers and delayed language development.”

Dimitri’s findings were so significant that they forced Disney to buy back the Baby Einstein series DVDs that they were marketing to parents as tools to spur early childhood development and the publication of the book, The Elephant in the Living Room, (St Martin’s Press, 2006), which he co-authored with Fred Zimmerman, Ph.D. “I did not set out to take on Disney,” Dimitri said, “but I am delighted that the research made a meaningful difference in societal perspectives on the effects of media created for infants.” As 2010 unfolds, both brothers have plans to build on their existing findings and explore new areas. “We are now looking at the biological and genetic basis of networks and how innovations and cooperation diffuse in networks of people and physicians,” Nicholas said, noting the value of his team’s RWJF grant in allowing him to take some risks when looking at social networks.

“This year, we are looking at ways to modify the media diet of pre-schoolers,” Dimitri said. “Our research teams are going into homes to train parents in how to use TIVO, V-chips and other tools to reduce harm from kids’ TV viewing habits. We are also developing a mouse model of overstimulation during infancy.”

Going forward, the Christakis brothers have no plans to work together on research, but Dimitri notes that their greatest support and encouragement came from their hard-working, immigrant parents who came to the United States to get a college education. “We were raised to believe that education and public service were of paramount importance,” Dimitri says, “and that’s the foundation of our work.”

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar, Generalist Physician, Investigator and Pioneer Program grants provide opportunities for physicians and scientists to explore a variety of topics related to the practice of clinical medicine, community-based research and other areas.