Grantee: Peter James, Sc.D.

Peter James

Peter James, Sc.D.

Environmental Epidemiologist
BBPSB Grantee
Organization:
  • Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc.

Current Title
Assistant Professor
Harvard Medical School and Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute

Describe your scientific identity.
I am an environmental epidemiologist conducting research on how geospatial factors, such as green space or the built environment, influence health behaviors, mental health, and chronic disease risk.

What are your research interests?
My research focuses on geospatial factors, including exposure to nature, the built environment, air pollution, light pollution, noise, and socioeconomic factors, and their influence on health behaviors and chronic disease risk. I work primarily with large, prospective cohort studies, including the Nurses' Health Studies, and I am currently developing methodologies to assess real-time, high-resolution measures of location and behavior by linking smartphone-based global positioning systems (GPS) and wearable device data to understand how geospatial factors influence cancer-related health behaviors, such as physical activity, sleep, and obesity.

What is the significance of your current research project?
Geospatial factors, such as access to green space and walkable built environments, may drive dominant risk factors for cancer, including physical inactivity, inadequate sleep, and obesity. While previous research has focused on residential addresses to define geospatial exposures and self-reported data to measure health outcomes, recent technological advances have opened up new avenues for research. GPS-enabled smartphones and consumer wearable accelerometry devices enable efficient, rigorous, and objective measures of geographic context, physical activity, and sleep with high spatiotemporal resolution. Through work funded by NCI, I am incorporating a smartphone and wearable device protocol into the Nurses' Health Study 3 cohort. We are gaining minute-level insights into geospatial exposures and cancer-related health behaviors among 500 cohort participants sampled for four weeks across a year. These data provide unprecedented perspectives on the influence of geospatial factors on physical activity and sleep, two interdependent behavioral risk factors for obesity and cancer. The high spatiotemporal resolution information on environment and behavior gathered represents a rich dataset with considerable potential for future analyses and grants.

What motivated you to work in biobehavioral or psychological science research?
I grew up in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, and I witnessed the city undergo massive change, both in the physical makeup of the city and in the city's demographics. This sparked my interest in understanding how the places in which we live are shaped by us, but also how they shape us. Consistent with the ecosocial model, I recognized that these changes to the built and natural environment of D.C. had a substantial influence on the initiation and maintenance of healthy behaviors, and I became transfixed on studying these changes to inform policymakers and planners on how to create places that optimize health.

Describe something that had a profound influence on your program of research or scientific interests (an "ah-ha!" moment).
The recent explosion in technology and data science has deeply influenced my research. As I observe the emergence of popular consumer wearables, the development of novel smartphone apps, and the groundbreaking ability of artificial intelligence and analytics to process and make sense of these data, I realized that these technologies hold massive potential to answer questions about what drives health behaviors. Incorporating these novel data streams into prospective cohorts will enable pioneering epidemiologic research by providing high-resolution information on environmental exposures and health behaviors at a massive scale.

Selected training, awards, and honors:

  • NIH mHealth Winter Training Institute Scholarship (2012)
  • Best Poster Award: Innovation, Annual Meeting of the Transdisciplinary Research on Energetics and Cancer (2015)
  • Center for Active Design: Excellence Award for Research (2016)
  • Best Poster Presentation, Dana Farber / Harvard Cancer Center Fourth Annual Celebration of Junior Investigators in Cancer Research (2016)


I grew up in Washington, D.C., during the 1980s, and I witnessed the city undergo massive change, both in the physical makeup of the city and in the city's demographics. This sparked my interest in understanding how the places in which we live are shaped by us, but also how they shape us.”



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