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Inside the mind of researcher Sheryl Thorburn

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Professor Sheryl Thorburn, Head of the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences, came to the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2002 as an associate professor. Prior to Oregon State, she served as a research scientist with the Research Program on Women’s Health at the Center for the Study of Women in Society at the University of Oregon. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology at Oregon State University; a master’s degree in Sociology from the UC San Diego; an MPH in Behavioral Sciences from the School of Public Heath, UC Berkeley; and a PhD in Health Behavior and Health Education from the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I was not aware of the field of public health until I was in my mid-20s. I was still trying to find the right career for me, and after a friend heard me talk about my interests, she asked, “What about public health?” I researched some MPH programs and realized public health was a perfect fit. I decided to take my interest in doing something to contribute to society, i.e. make the world a better place, and my background in sociology and apply it to improving population health. Soon after beginning my MPH at UC Berkeley, I knew that I wanted to get my PhD. At first, I was most interested in program evaluation and working with community organizations and others in designing and conducting evaluations. I had great experiences in evaluation as a doctoral student. During my PhD training, however, I found that there were really interesting and important research questions that I wanted to study that were not related to evaluation. So, my career path evolved over time. It is not where you start that matters most, it is where you land!”

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CPHHS Professor Sheryl Thorburn, co-director of the School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences.

What does your current research entail?

“My current interests focus on discrimination in health care, medical mistrust and stigma – and how these things impact the health care and health-related behavior of disadvantaged populations and contribute to disparities in health and health care. I’ve examined these issues in the contexts of HIV prevention and treatment, reproductive health, and breast and cervical cancer screening, among others.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“It doesn’t take much effort to see that one’s social position affects the experiences you have, how people view and treat you, your resources for dealing with those experiences, how such experiences can influence your interactions with the health care and public health systems, your health-related decisions and behavior and, ultimately, your health status. As a doctoral student, I began reading work on the social and structural influences on health – and particularly work by Nancy Krieger and David Williams – both now at Harvard – and others on the health effects of racism and discrimination. While most of the research in this area at that time focused on biopsychosocial effects of such experiences, I became interested in how those experiences influence health-related behavior.”

How will this make a difference?

“The better we understand the social determinants of health, the better able we are to develop policy, programs and interventions to address them.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“For me, one of the most fascinating aspects of this area of research is to see the role of social determinants across multiple disease domains and health issues – and for diverse populations. I’ve always been more interested in how social factors influence health than on specific health outcomes or diseases. I tell my students that I’m more interested in the independent variable than the dependent variable.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“I am currently working with Jenny Faith, a postdoctoral scholar and graduate of our college, and two current PhD students, Tassnym Sinky and Olivia Lindly, both PhD students in Health Promotion and Health Behavior, on a small pilot study to identify factors that might ‘push’ or ‘pull’ Oregon breast cancer survivors to using complementary and integrative health practices and that might influence their disclosure of those practices to conventional medical providers.

We are exploring priority areas that are not well understood, including the influence of stigma and health care processes. The focus on complementary and integrative health, also known as ‘CAM,’ comes from the need to better understand how people’s experiences with the health care system, including experiences of discrimination and stigma, may lead them to seek alternatives to conventional health care.

Another project focuses on the role of stigma in the experience of survivorship among breast, prostate and lung cancer survivors living in rural areas.”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“I was incredibly fortunate that I had two mentors in graduate school, JoAnne Earp and Karl Bauman at UNC Chapel Hill, who inspired me and were great role models – especially in terms of their commitment to quality mentoring and research. They both had more influence on determining the type of scholar and faculty member I am than they will ever realize! I still keep in touch with JoAnne more than 20 years later; she is now over 70 and semi-retired after 40 years as a faculty member.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Follow your passion. If you don’t love at least 85 percent of what you do and what is expected of you, then you probably need to find a different job!”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“All of my favorite activities outside of work involve spending time with my husband and my daughter, who is now a first-year college student. We love hiking, camping and just hanging out with our dog. I am also a foodie and love to cook and eat good food!”