Inside the mind of researcher Kate MacTavish

Kate MacTavish, OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences

Associate professor Katherine“Kate” MacTavish joined the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2001. Before coming to Oregon State, Kate was an adjunct instructor of early childhood education at the University of New Mexico-Valencia and the coordinator of early childhood programs for Magdalena Municipal Schools in Magdalena, New Mexico. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Arts Education and a master’s degree in Early Childhood Special Education from the University of New Mexico, and a doctoral degree in Human and Community Development from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

What made you decide to get into the behavioral health field? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I don’t think there was one specific moment but I can definitely point to the roots of my interests in behavioral health. I come from an applied background in public education. For five years, I worked as a teacher and administrator for a small school district in one of the 20 poorest counties in the nation. Through that work, I became very intrigued by community effects on child and youth development. Basically, I wondered how growing up in that small economically impoverished but socially rich context mattered to the kids I had in my classroom and their families.”

What does your current research entail?

“I have a few projects in my research lens currently. The one project I am most excited about is concerned with the return migration of rural young people. Youth outmigration, or the rural brain drain, has received much attention but I am interested in understanding the experiences of those young folks who, after gaining an education in the city, come back to their hometown. My preliminary interviews make it clear that returning is complicated. Young people have to navigate family and community perceptions that coming home somehow signals failure in the wider world. I’ll start fieldwork on that project this summer up in Wallowa County and I am hoping to do some cross-cultural comparison in rural Japan. All of this excites me because I think cultivating pathways back home for young people might be a powerful means for sustaining rural communities.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“For more than a decade I co-taught an experiential learning class called ‘Communities and Natural Resources’ with John Bliss from the College of Forestry. In the context of that class, we bumped into rural young people coming home after time in the city. Their stories of navigating family and community relationships really sparked my interest.”

How does your work make a difference?

“I like to think my research makes a difference at several levels. Much of my work ends up focused on implications for policy and practice. Most recently, I have shared copies of our new book, ‘Singlewide: Chasing the American Dream in a Rural Trailer Park,’ with the families who took part in our study. I have loved hearing how reading our book has caused them to reconsider their own experiences. I am hoping some difference will come from that.”

What’s next for you?

“At this time of year, it’s hard to think much past graduation! Fieldwork in Wallowa County will start in late June. I’m looking forward to some trail runs and family backpacking time while we’re up there as well.”

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

“My father often told me that patience is a virtue. I think finally in middle age I am embracing the value of patience. I am finding that patience in all aspects of my life, including my life as a scholar, is critical. Ideas, insights, skills and a deep understanding of anything takes time. Remembering my Dad’s words gives me permission to take that time and not feel the pressure to rush.”

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

“Take this moment you have while in school to really be present. This is your chance to stretch yourself and to glean all you can from these years. Give yourself time and energy for that and leave the worries about what comes next aside for now.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“In a word—running! I also love digging in the soil and growing food for my family.”