Community Engagement Public Health Research

Inside the mind of researcher Kari-Lyn Sakuma

“I am looking at how new and emerging tobacco products are impacting African American youth and young adults. I want to know what they know about these products, how they learned about these products, how they feel about these products and what kinds of marketing are being used by tobacco companies to reach this population,” Kari-Lyn says.

CPHHS Assistant Professor Kari-Lyn Sakuma researches new and emerging tobacco products – like those picture with her above – and how they are impacting African American youth and young adults.

New to Oregon State, Kari-Lyn Sakuma joined the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2014 as an assistant professor of Health Promotion and Health Behavior. She previously served as an assistant research professor in the School of Community and Global Health at Claremont Graduate University in California, as a lecturer at Keck School of Medicine-Preventive Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and as a research associate at the Prevention Research Center at The Pennsylvania State University in Pennsylvania. She earned a master’s degree in Public Health and a PhD in Preventive Medicine, Health Behavior Research from the University of Southern California.

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

CPHHS Assistant Professor Kari-Lyn Sakuma.
CPHHS Assistant Professor Kari-Lyn Sakuma.

“I actually wanted to be a forensic scientist because I wanted to bring justice to homicide and violence victims. This was before CSI and all those popular TV shows. So I interviewed for a fellowship with the FBI but immediately after that interview, I considered the reality that I would be burnt out after a few years and wondered if I could do more if I focused on prevention. It was at that point that I moved toward preventive medicine and at the time tobacco was (and still is) the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States.”

What does your current research entail?

“I am looking at how new and emerging tobacco products are impacting African American youth and young adults. I want to know what they know about these products, how they learned about these products, how they feel about these products and what kinds of marketing are being used by tobacco companies to reach this population.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“What gets me especially fired up is the notion that tobacco use is an individual choice. The cards were so stacked against the individual, particularly our most vulnerable populations and people of color, that using tobacco was no longer a choice but an inevitable norm. When tobacco companies can spend $22 billion EACH DAY in marketing and focus their efforts in low-income communities and among communities of color resulting in disparate health and economic impacts, it is a clear form of social injustice. When I believed it was an individual choice, tobacco use was simply a health risk factor. When I saw the patterns of marketing and strategic undermining of cessation efforts and large differences in morbidity and mortality among specific groups and communities, it became much more important to me to counter the wrong being done and help bring health back to those communities.”

How will this make a difference?


“My current research is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so the work that I do will directly inform tobacco control policy. Specifically, we will be learning about marketing exposure and key influences for tobacco use among African American youth. If results indicate that youth are primarily influenced by point-of-sale ads in their neighborhood, then policies could be put in place to limit those types of exposures. If we learn that youth are primarily influenced through social media advertising ,then new techniques will be needed to monitor and enforce youth exposure in that medium. Furthermore, we’ll be learning about different influences on use so we can better produce and tailor interventions to reduce tobacco initiation and use among African Americans, which is important given the disproportionate impact that tobacco has had on the lives and well-being of this group.”

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

“Everyone knows that cigarettes will kill you. Yet, every day more than 4,000 adolescents start using cigarettes and tobacco companies essentially get a free pass to sell this product to the masses. What is fascinating to me are the questions, ‘Why do people use tobacco?’ and ‘How can we prevent them from starting or how can we help them to stop using tobacco?’ It’s actually a very social process, and tobacco companies are incredibly sophisticated in how they manipulate that social process around their products. I love learning about this socialization and perception manipulation, especially as the new and emerging products are entering the market. Of course, beyond just learning about it, I am interested in ways to counter the tobacco industry influence through interventions.”


What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“To help prevent and eliminate tobacco-related death and disease!”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on this project?

“I have collaborations with Professor Peggy Dolcini, Professor Joe Catania, Associate Professor Jangho Yoon and CPHHS doctoral grad students: Maddie Greaves and Jessica Seifert. I’ve also discussed potential future projects with Associate Professor Jeff Luck and Professor Brian Flay.”

Why is research important in the field of Public Health?

“We as a community need to know what has been done, what needs to be done and what is the most effective way to increase the health and well-being for everyone. Public health critically relies on research to help us understand the cause of disease and how to address it in the most appropriate way.”

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

“I am interested in other tobacco-related health disparity subpopulations such as Hispanic/Latino youth and young adults, pregnant women and low socioeconomic status/rural communities. I’m looking forward to address these disparities through the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families and in partnerships with the Benton-Linn-Lincoln County tobacco coalitions.”


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

“Maybe this is more of a philosophy than advice, but my mom always told me to remember that my successes were due in part to everyone around me, so appreciate and recognize those people. This not only humbles me, but it helps me to empathize and understand my communities when I work with them to address issues – a person is more than just an individual; we are all connected.”

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

“Take intellectual risks now while you can! Now is the chance to really dive into what you’re interested in, try new things and learn about diverse issues without worrying about whether you know enough or what others will think. For recent alumni, I like to remind them that they are privileged to have received a great education and with that comes a responsibility to go forth and do great things.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I love just hanging out with my family, which includes my husband, two young boys and two dogs. I also enjoy any kind of fiber arts (sewing, knitting, crafting, card making) and baking goodies to share.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.