May 27, 2024

Ying-Ying Meng, director of research at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and whose work focused on the causes of and solutions to inequities in health and health care delivery from a holistic perspective, died of cancer on April 11. She was 68.

For more than two decades, Meng led studies ranging from inequities in California tobacco policies and the mental health benefits of parks and natural spaces in neighborhoods to air pollution exposure-associated health and economic costs. Her contributions helped make the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, or CHPR, a go-to source for those seeking insightful analysis of population-based data to understand the relationship between physical and social environments and chronic disease.

“In her remarkable work as a researcher and scholar, Ying-Ying helped people understand what terms like ‘health disparities’ and ‘health equity’ mean and why they’re so important,” said Ninez A. Ponce, director of the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and holder of the Fred W. and Pamela K. Wasserman Chair in Health Policy and Management at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“Her research and dedication helped establish the center as a vital resource for researchers, policymakers and journalists,” Ponce said.

Meng served as principal investigator and co-investigator on major grants at the center and conducted pivotal studies on environmental health, air pollution, asthma, smoking behaviors and tobacco policies, and much more.

Her study examining the health and economic impacts of work loss due to sickness associated with exposure to particulate matter in California found that wildfire smoke alone could contribute to a related economic loss of $129 million to $521 million per year from 2015–2018.

Another research project she led found that teenagers and older adults who live within a few blocks of green space are more likely to have better mental health than their counterparts who did not. She studied racial and ethnic disparities in asthma and diabetes care. And her investigations showed how even though a majority of tenants in Los Angeles favored smoke-free apartments, 80% of units were not protected by tobacco bans.

Meng was born in 1956 in Shanghai, China, where she grew up as well. She received her undergraduate education in English and literature from Fudan University and completed Chinese traditional medicine and Western medicine coursework in Shanghai. In 1989, Meng earned her master’s degree in health policy and administration from UC Berkeley and in 1995 she received her doctorate.

A position at the CHPR brought Meng to UCLA in 2000. She would become director of research, co-director of the Chronic Disease Program and a senior research scientist. She also held an academic researcher appointment at the Fielding School of Public Health in the department of health policy and management. In time she became the principal investigator or project director for groundbreaking studies that examined the complex relationships between health and poverty level, race and ethnicity, environmental contexts such as traffic/air pollution and the impacts of smoking.

As the director of research, Meng helped support colleagues and research staff and helped build on the UCLA CHPR’s 30-year history of innovative research by strengthening partnerships among the center’s researchers and with funders, researchers outside of the center and community-based organizations.

She authored more than 100 publications, and her research has been published in national and international peer-reviewed journals such as Environment International, American Journal of Public Health and Environmental Advances, among many others.

The most recent study she led was typical of her work, which regularly functioned as a rigorous test of accountability for government public health policies and programs. The study showed that even though California has led the nation in efforts to curb tobacco use, members of traditionally minoritized populations received fewer protections from local governmental efforts to cut tobacco use.

Ponce emphasized the contributions Meng made beyond her work as a brilliant scholar.

“Ying-Ying was an extraordinary person whose distinguished career was surpassed only by her endless warmth and kindness,” Ponce said in a message to the entire UCLA CHPR. “Her infectious smile and positive spirit were a beacon of light at our center, uplifting and inspiring all who had the privilege to work alongside her.”

To Yu Yu, a postdoctoral researcher at the UCLA CHPR, Meng was not merely a supervisor and a mentor.

“Dr. Meng was an inspiration. She said that she did not want her mentoring to be just about fostering professional skills but also inspiring personal growth and resilience,” Yu said. “She was always ready to listen, advise and gently guide. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside Dr. Meng, even though it was for only 1,304 days. Her dedication to excellence and her legacy of professionalism will forever remain in my heart.”

Meng served on the editorial board of Frontiers in Environmental Health. She also served as a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health and the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Meng was also actively involved in student training and mentoring by creating learning opportunities for postdoctoral scholars, graduate student researchers, interns and volunteers.

Prior to joining the UCLA CHPR, Meng was the vice president of Wildflowers Institute. She worked as a senior researcher in the Quality Initiatives Division of Foundation Health Systems, now Health Net, and as the director of programs at the Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations. She also provided consultations to private, government, and international agencies. Meng has received awards for her work, including a Kellogg Health Fellowship and World Health Organization Fellowship.

Meng is survived by her husband, Guidong Xie, and their two children, Philip and Minnar.

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