Alumni Spotlight: Joe Astorino

Joe is standing and pointing towards an image on a projected screen.
Joe Astorino giving a presentation on diet and nutrition problems faced by low-income people in 2017. Photo by Abigail Linnenkohl for The Daily Evergreen.

Many alumni of the WSU Sociology department are doing meaningful work, employing their training and skills in a variety of settings. Recently, we caught up with Joe Astorino, who received his PhD in 2015 and focused on environmental sociology, science and technology studies, and social networks. Since graduating, Joe was the coordinator of the Community Food Program within the Community Action Center in Whitman County and recently began a new position as a postdoctoral scientist at George Washington University. We were excited to talk with Joe about his trajectory and recent work and look forward to highlighting more of our alumni in future newsletters.

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Tom: Do you recall when and why you arrived in Pullman in the Department of Sociology as a graduate student?

Joe: I moved to Pullman in 2009 from a small town called Franklin, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. I did my master’s in sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and applied to several PhD programs. I knew I was interested in environmental sociology and I decided on Pullman. I liked the feel of Pullman and the department is very community oriented, so that was a draw.

One good memory is our cohort was really bonded. We were in that bullpen room, all in the same office, and I remember doing a lot of things with incoming students, like apple picking. Also taking Gene Rosa’s Human Ecology class and Tech and Society class. I was not interested in technology or science studies at all, and I didn’t know what that was. My awakening to the sociology of science was through Gene, and I really loved the approach to technology that he gave. I was always averse to thinking about engineering or nuclear energy because it just didn’t seem like that was sociology to me, or I didn’t know the approaches to studying it that way. So it really opened my eyes, which led to working with Scott Frickel. Gene made science studies and sociology of science real and introduced it as a subfield and transdisciplinary field.

Students planting lines of tomatoes at the WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm.
WSU Eggert Family Organic Farm photo from

Simultaneously I was being exposed to all this food system stuff. There was the WSU Organic Farm and graduate students could take a certificate program in sustainable agriculture as an add-on to your PhD. I took a practicum that involved learning the ropes of the farm and the different components and a lot of networking of the major players. I volunteered at the farm one summer, which led to a researcher role. I started doing field work and qualitative work with some of the folks out there.

Tom: Were you doing sociological research on the farm?

Joe: Yes. I’d taken Jenn Sherman’s qualitative methods class my second year, and we had to put a study through IRB and come up with the interview protocol and everything, so I was interviewing students who were working on the farm and researchers. I was interested in the overlay of how researchers were using this innovative space where production is happening to develop new lines of vegetables and grains. I thought it was fascinating how there were so many different uses of the same space, and in some cases, people were looking at it as an organic laboratory. That was weaving my interests with Scott and Gene together with science studies and how space matters and knowledge production. Long story short, there were a lot of years of interviewing scientists, following them to their lab meetings and to their conferences and watching how their knowledge production networks worked.

Tom: Did you think that was what your dissertation was going to focus on?

Joe: Yeah, at that point I had already collected a third of my data and was getting ready to defend my proposal, and that’s when Greg Hooks comes in. Greg really wanted me to do a comparative component, so I had been spending all this time with these organic hippie farmers, tracing their worlds. And then there’s this genetic engineering epistemic network or culture that’s happening simultaneously, which is fascinating from a sociology point of view because a lot of the organic systems are trying to provide a new food system beyond that model of production. So I joined a biotech genetic engineering lab to understand how they differed from organic knowledge production. I was in these crazy molecular biology lab meetings and in their lab spaces, meeting their funders and seeing how all their research is produced, following them to wheat commission meetings where the farmers tax their profits to fund some of this science. I audited a class in molecular plant genetics, and it was really fascinating and exposed me to some of the techniques behind genetic engineering and unraveled some of the controversies—unraveling the science piece of it from the political side of it.

Tom: And that is where your dissertation really started to develop?

Joe: Yeah, what was fascinating to me was that people were sending biological samples, so, seed networks. In organic agriculture there’s a lot of seed sharing and seed development of germplasm or of genetic material. Everyone knows what organic food is, but you don’t think about what’s an organic seed. So, tracing back the genetic lines of different crops. The same thing was happening in the biotech world with sharing genetic sequences and this kind of thing, and it seemed that if you started tracing who was sharing with whom you could unfold essentially new interdisciplinary fields that were developing. That was really the meat of it and comparing those two. I guess I would say processes of network formation.

Tom: Can you give a summary what your dissertation involved?

Joe: I coded for the way people were talking about space and place in the two cultures, and how their understandings of geography were shaping the network. The organic agriculture network was interested in place-based knowledge and how seeds tie you to different locations. Essentially, when you’re selecting for different traits in a location those choices get embedded in the seeds that continue as the next generation of crop. A lot of people name their seeds after the location or the person who’s in that network, and if you start to interview people about how this got named, there’s whole stories behind strains of seeds. You’ve probably seen that with tomatoes.

Tom: So, if you buy generic seeds off a non-local seller, that’s not going to work as well as if you can get some that are matched with the land. Is that what you’re talking about?

Joe: Yeah. I was interested in how that process is activated through people, through culture, and comparing that to the biotech space where they have this map of the genome in their head of the sequence they’re working on. They were using similar language about moving around space and how different areas of the genome make different traits more effective for yield, but if you have this invisible space, you have to use human metaphors, language, and understanding to navigate in it. I was able to understand how new students in the lab were socialized into this imagined geography, if you will.

Tom: After you finish the dissertation, what’s the future look like for you?

Joe: I’ll be a little bit vulnerable here (laughs). About two years before I finished, I came out as gay and realized that I had to develop that part of my life a little bit, so I started dating someone at WSU and I realized I was going to stay in the area and wanted to find ways to develop meaningful, long-term relationships with the community.

I was using the networks I had developed from the farm, and in the undergrad classes I was teaching, we were doing a lot of service-learning projects with food banks. About eight months before I defended, I took a position at the Community Action Center (CAC), and got in on the ground floor for a new program they were developing called Community Food. At the time it was called the Food Bank Gardens. The CAC is essentially a nonprofit organization in Pullman that serves Whitman County to move individuals and communities to a positive future. A broad mission statement but what that looks like in reality is low-income energy assistance programs, housing programs, and food assistance. So, I got a chance to be exposed to all the things related to non-profit work and community needs assistance.

I helped develop the program Community Food, did some evaluation research and assessments, and helped set up a new state-funded program called SNAP Education. Everyone knows about SNAP and food assistance, but states are also supposed to implement an educational component with your SNAP benefits on food nutrition and health. For a long time, Whitman county was one of the only counties in the state of Washington that did not have a SNAP Ed program. The capacity of our local health department to implement something like that wasn’t there. The state rules changed so that every county needed one of these programs. So, our agency applied and was able to get funding into an area that was geographically left out for a long time—which was hurting a lot of our SNAP recipients because they are eligible for all these cooking and gardening classes and basically whatever we wanted to design that had some evidence base behind it we could put into a proposal and it was pretty much guaranteed funding. It was noncompetitive but was a good asset for both the agency and the county at large. We did some cool work in Rosalia, Tekoa, and Endicott, which are small communities that I was exposed to from Sarah Whitley (WSU PhD 2013) and Rayna Sage (University of Montana, WSU PhD 2012) who were farther than me in the sociology program and had been doing studies on poverty and food security for the county. We were able to pick up where they left off and bring some hydroponic gardens to schools, bring some cooking classes to schools, and start a food coalition for the county that could start to piece together the needs across the county.

All that led to applying for a USDA grant in a mechanism called the Community Food Projects Funding Program. We applied and got a planning grant that let us take a whole year to assess all the needs for food security in the county. This is where I get excited because I’d say the value of all the qualitative training I had at WSU, especially from Jenn and Scott, got to be put to real rubber-to-road use. We created a community-based research group by recruiting people who were using the food banks, managing the food banks—social work employees and food security employees—to be on this committee to guide how we design the research. We figured out together what we wanted to do focus groups about, what’s important to ask, what are the big research questions, and how do we make sure that our research questions are aligned with what the community needs. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what’s going to give them the buy-in to disseminate any reports that we come out with or recommendations. We did community meetings and drove around Whitman and Latah counties; it was so fun. We would create these research parties, essentially, where we would have a meal and invite everyone in the town. We did it in Genesee, Uniontown, and Potlatch, and we did workshops and used a method called appreciative inquiry where we get them thinking about what they really like about their food system in their town and then what their challenges are.

Tom: Now you’re talking about some smaller towns in Idaho. Were you always serving both Washington and Idaho?

Joe: No, I’m glad you asked that. One reason we got funding was because the USDA was excited that we were crossing state lines. Even though there are certain agencies who have mandates to serve within the state, our funding required us to cross the state, which opened all these conversations about bioregions and how we get agencies to work across states. We had to have a lot of hard conversations about who should and could be involved. There’s a lot of red tape admin that I, to be honest, wasn’t prepared to navigate, but you learn quickly and there’s a lot of tools for that.

Tom: Fascinating because obviously state lines matter, politically and socially, but the physical environment doesn’t care about those state lines. There are going to be economic differences that are based on state policies, but for some towns in the two states, maybe there’s not that much difference?

Joe: That’s a great question, Tom, because one thing we realized was, in terms of food banks, Pullman is blessed with a facility that has staff and a refrigerator and all this capacity. But when you go to Tekoa, theirs is in their city hall. Other places are in the basement of the church, and there’s just this tenuous notion that if leadership changes and decides this isn’t something they want to do anymore they can just pull the plug and then the whole town is left without a resource for food. What was cool about the project I was describing—we called it the Palouse Tables Project—was we were essentially creating a network of these food bank managers who are paraprofessional volunteers but super dedicated—like the biggest-hearted people you’d ever meet. What we were able to do was match them in a buddy system with another food bank or food pantry who had similar capacity. Like Potlatch—I think they had an Eagle Scout who built this tiny building behind their town hall, and it was beautiful and had great cold storage and protection from pests. We were introducing their folks to the folks in Uniontown who were on that path but hadn’t figured out how to do it. So, using actor networks, if you will, to keep the energy going around and designing solutions. The big outcome from the report was how do we design something that is sustainable and supports both farmers and food security initiatives.

The USDA has this planning grant, and the idea is you spend a year and then apply for the implementation grant, and we didn’t get it. That was devastating after a year of building up these communities to come to these research parties and tell us all their needs. And then you think, “Oh, I’m the researcher who goes in and promises all this stuff, and then money makes it not possible”—which just feeds into distrust of research in general. We were able to get the reviews from the grant and find out exactly what they didn’t like. So, we took another six months, rewrote the grant, and changed our evaluation plan and our budget. We reapplied in April of last year, when COVID started, and the agency got the grant and they’re in the process of implementing that now.

But as all that was going on, I decided to resign from my job and look for remote work. Over the summer my partner and I wrote a chapter in a book about COVID-19. My partner, Anthony, is a virologist, and we used some science studies stuff to unpack the role of viruses in society, which led to me getting this position right now. I’m a postdoc scientist at George Washington University in DC for their Cancer Center, and I work for the Institute for Patient Centered Initiatives and Health Equity.

Tom: Can you talk a bit about the work you are doing in your postdoc position?

Joe: It’s fascinating learning about the Cancer Center and George Washington University. The project I’m working on is in a new transdisciplinary field called implementation science. It started in the early 2000s but essentially firmed up in 2006 or so, and what they’re looking at is the research translation pipeline. So, you have lab work going on and clinical studies, and there’s all this great science coming out and evidence about what works, but then we just expect people to pick up those things and do them. But just because they’re true and they work in our labs doesn’t mean that communities are going to accept them or that clinicians are going to know how to use these technologies or understand the mechanisms behind them. And there’s big concern about fidelity to the evidence base. Like, once you adapt the technology and it’s part of a community, it might not work the same because you’ve changed it too much. A lot of interventions in public health go through voltage effects or voltage drops, where if you go back to the community and measure the effect of the program, it’s no longer doing what we thought it was going to do. So back to science and technology studies. It’s fascinating when you start thinking about actor networks and over time how things are transforming as they go from labs to communities.

With cancer, what we’re really looking at is screening. We have all these great technologies for screening for colorectal cancer and lung cancer. etc., but there’s vast inequities among how they’re implemented in terms of rural areas and urban areas, and the African American community and trust about screenings. And then on top of that is all the structural and social problems related to health systems and who has access to healthcare. I was just on a call where they were talking about how Kaiser Permanente has great systems to remind their patients, like, “You’re 50—it’s time to get your colonoscopy” and you get an email or a text message on your phone. I’m thinking that’s great for anyone who can be in that system, but think of the vast inequalities related to that if your implementation plan is to send out text messages. It’s not going to work for a wide variety of our populations.

What I’m helping them do is develop a boot camp training program for implementation. Implementation science has developed this whole field of maximizing and optimizing strategies that match the context of your community—looking at your context, doing community assessments and focus groups, and then looking at what you’re trying to implement and using strategies like reminder systems, training programs, or learning collaboratives. They’re building this experimental database of clinical trials of the implementation strategy. One arm of the trial will train people a certain way, and the other arm doesn’t, and then they’ll compare the effectiveness of the implementation. But the problem now is these implementation researchers are specialized in their own field and not working with practitioners on the ground. We’re designing a boot camp to bring practitioners and implementation scientists together to learn from each other.

Tom: It seems like you’re the perfect fit for this position. I was curious about how you moved from food bank community work to a postdoc at George Washington having to do with health, but now I see the connection with respect to implementation. Science and technology are produced in society and a human world where the actors have a say as to how things are produced and how things are used, and this is an interesting practical use of those ideas.

Joe: I knew that questions about and in relation to health and figuring out that piece of health equity and scientific equity were exciting to me. I am finding that community based participatory research is still controversial because a lot of people say there isn’t enough evidence to say something’s effective if you’re just studying it at the community level, and it’s hard to generalize external validity. A lot of research has been going on about how we overcome this history of systemic racism in our research, where we go in and say we want to study this community because it’s a poor, urban community, and they feel like they’ve been over-studied and this whole conversation. A lot of communities are setting up advisory boards, where there are leaders who are cultivated to vet the researchers and their questions and say, “This makes sense” or “That doesn’t make sense,” or “Why are these materials not in Spanish?” and force the researchers’ feet to the fire in terms of equity, and saying, “We’re not just going to let you in here because you have a credential, and we want to know how is this going to benefit us. What is your plan for dissemination? Instead of just a journal article, are you going to give community talks? Are you going to produce cartoons?” There’s good research coming out on public health messaging like letting the community design animated characters that represent them and then the characters are performing the health behaviors.

So, I think that’s an exciting way forward, especially in sociology and thinking about the knowledge we’re producing about poverty and race and gender and the vulnerabilities that our subjects have. How do we start learning what their needs are before we write our grants and before we write our journal articles? Getting those needs into the conversation early, which requires you to have trusting, long-term, reciprocal relationships. And I think we need to revisit the ethics of research. Researchers often do not give back to the communities they study. I think it’s a standard of reciprocity, like when you’re doing fieldwork, we are taught to identify boundaries and avoid giving people rides or helping with community projects. I just think there’s a disconnect there in terms of making long-term connections that would open up good research and data opportunities.

Tom: You’re still putting what you studied and learned into practice. Do you have any advice for current students?

Joe: I’d say the world has changed around academic departments in terms of what’s available, and alternative academic careers and nonlinear are becoming more popular because of the need to bring the knowledge we have to communities and figuring out how to do research with communities. That’s simultaneously happening in the universities with community-based work, so nonprofits are doing their own research and universities are trying to figure out how we include communities. And you can publish—there’s great research coming out with authors listed who are community members, and I think there’s a real value to that.