Postdoc Profile: John Salerno

John Salerno, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scientist at the Columbia University School of Social Work, spoke with us about his research on Latinx immigrants and LGBTQ youth, his decision to come to Columbia, and his recent move from Miami to New York.

Can you speak about your background and your education, as they relate to your current field of study?

I was born in Panama, and was raised in Miami, Florida; my parents emigrated to the States when I was an infant. I obtained both a BA in psychology and MPH from the University of Miami, and a PhD in behavioral and community health from the University of Maryland, along with a graduate certificate in measurement, statistics, and evaluation.

My research agenda aims to address health and social disparities and inequities among socially marginalized populations, such as racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minority groups. Specifically, my research seeks to promote the mental health and well-being of Latinx immigrants and LGBTQ youth.

I see my research as very much tied to my own lived experience. I identify strongly as a child of immigrant parents, even though I’m technically an immigrant myself. Growing up, I witnessed firsthand what my mother went through, specifically the struggles that she faced as a first-generation Latinx immigrant woman in the U.S.

Head shot of John Salerno wearing a white shirt with black polka dots

You speak about bringing many different lenses to your work: What led you to social work as opposed to some other field?

There is significant alignment between the fields of public health and social work. Both are very much interested in improving the health of populations and of people from marginalized groups. Something that I really like about social work is that they want to improve health, but also, they have a very strong focus on addressing the social injustices and oppression that vulnerable and specific groups are facing. That's something that is not always emphasized in public health. Sometimes, public health research is more broadly focused on the health of the general population, or a broadly defined health disparity population. In social work, there is a large focus on humanizing experiences – the lived experiences of people – and thinking about what they're actually going through.

For example, something that I think is often overlooked in public health is the experience of Latino immigrants entering through the U.S.-Mexico border. They come here seeking a better life, trying to flee from the trauma and the oppression that they're experiencing in their countries of origin – particularly in Central America. When they arrive, the first thing that happens is that they're arrested and incarcerated. It can be for six months, twelve months – even years. And that's not something that is researched often in public health, or even considered. Neither is the meaning of living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant and the impact of lacking access to local, state, and federal benefits that require legal U.S. status, to say the least. From a social work perspective, such experiences are very much within the realm of what we would examine and aim to address.

What methods are you using in your work?

I like to employ a community-engaged research approach to my work. Currently, I am partnering with a community-based organization – one of the primary nonprofit agencies in the Washington, D.C. area that seeks to provide health- and mental healthcare access to undocumented Latinx immigrants. There is a large proportion of immigrants from the Northern Triangle in the Washington, D.C. area: countries where there is a lot of social, economic, and political turmoil and extreme poverty, and that account for the majority of immigrants entering the U.S. via the U.S.-Mexico border.

"Something that I think is often overlooked in public health is the experience of Latino immigrants entering through the U.S.-Mexico border. They come here seeking a better life ... when they arrive, the first thing that happens is that they're arrested and incarcerated."

The organization provides a unique school-based mental health intervention for Latinx immigrant teenagers, for which I am the lead on the evaluation team. Currently, I am utilizing primary cross-sectional data from this partnership to examine risk and resilience factors for their mental health, utilizing various quantitative methods, such as linear and mixture modeling. In the near future, I plan to conduct a follow-up study using qualitative methods that will investigate their lived experiences of risk and resilience as Latinx immigrant youth originating from the Northern Triangle, and I hope to be able to learn more about youth at the intersections with LGBTQ identities as well.

What made you decide to come to Columbia?

Well to start off, New York has a very diverse population, which improves ability to conduct meaningful research with minoritized and marginalized populations, such as Latinx and LGBTQ immigrants, which attracted me to the area given that I'm interested in conducting research with such people who are facing health and social disparities and inequities. Because New York has such a diverse population, it really facilitates this kind of research.

I decided to pursue this position largely as a result of the cluster hire initiative of Black and Latinx faculty with a focus on anti-racism work. I perceived the cluster hire initiative as highly intentional. It felt significant that a school or department was willing to say: “This is an area where we want to improve: the recruitment of minority faculty, who are specifically doing anti-racism and critically-oriented research work, and we are going to engage in an effort to hire faculty of this kind.” I thought: “Wow! This is somewhere I would like to be.”

The School of Social Work itself has a very comprehensive plan of action in-terms of anti-racism, which impressed me. We are constantly discussing the Columbia School of Social Work anti-racism action plan, and how to meet and expand upon our goals. It is an ongoing conversation.

How do you think that this program might help prepare you for a career as a potential faculty member?

That's certainly one of the main reasons why I accepted this position. The program comes in saying: “Hey, this is a postdoc-to-tenure-track position, and we want to help you in that transition, and we want you to stay.” This is very attractive to me, and potentially, to other applicants like me. The program provides me with mentorship from faculty who want to see me succeed. I think that I'm being provided with unique opportunities for training and experience, and I greatly appreciate being able to participate in teaching and university service. They’re making deliberate efforts to include me in the faculty experience, and I participate in faculty meetings, committees, and even social events with faculty. I don't think a lot of postdocs get to have these experiences that can position us well for the transition to assistant professor.

"The program provides me with mentorship from faculty who want to see me succeed. I think that I'm being provided with unique opportunities for training and experience, and I greatly appreciate being able to participate in teaching and university service."

What did the move to New York represent for you, and how do you like it so far?

The first time I moved away from home was when I moved to the Washington, D.C. area for my PhD. Then the pandemic happened, and I moved back to Miami. This move represents a new era for me, as I transition from student to faculty. 

So far, I like it very much. I was very surprised by that. During my interviews at Columbia, everyone I spoke with said that they loved New York. Now, I can see why; it truly is a very pleasant city and campus.

Which faculty and mentors will you be working with?

My official mentors at the School of Social Work are Drs. Carmela Alcántara, Heidi Allen, and Ana Abraído-Lanza. I am meeting with them on a regular basis. Beyond that, I'm meeting a lot of different faculty and staff, and I've also been getting to know the new [Race and Racism Scholarship] cluster-hire assistant professors.

How have you been spending your free time?

I came to the city without my car and I have lived most of my life in Miami, Florida, where you have to have a car. You cannot rely on public transportation to get anywhere. That was a big shift. When I got here, I thought that I would take the subway everywhere, because that's what everyone does. Since I've gotten here, I get mostly everywhere by bike. It's really fun to just leave the apartment and hop on a bike to explore the city and run errands. I've been doing a lot of home improvements since I moved, such as buying things for the apartment, decorating, doing that kind of thing.

Do you have any book, podcast, or TV show recommendations?

Amazon Prime has a new TV show called A League of their Own, which is a remake of the 1992 movie, and I just think the show is phenomenal. I was so impressed with coverage of the LGBTQ experience of women, as well as what it meant to be a Black LGBTQ woman back then. It's just a great representation of social issues, and I highly recommend it.

If you're interested in nursing, public health, and social work, I recommend Call the Midwife. It’s a great representation of the 1950s and ‘60s in East London. The show addresses public health issues in marginalized communities, along with really good coverage of social issues. 

Do you have any final thoughts?

Anyone who is interested in doing research and addressing public health and social issues with Latinx immigrants or LGBTQ young people should get in contact with me.