Faculty and Staff Public Health Research

Endowment supports breast cancer research

Inside the mind of researcher Veronica Irvin

Veronica Irvin

By Kathryn Stroppel

Associate ProfessorVeronica Irvinis the College of Public Health and Human Sciences’ newest endowed faculty member. She has conducted research over the past 15 years that uses a community-engaged approach to implement and evaluate behavior change interventions across a comprehensive list of health priorities such as tobacco control, nutrition, physical activity, cancer screening and patient navigation. She serves as public health faculty in health promotion and health behavior and for the college’s online MPH (master of public health).  

She earned an MPH in epidemiology from San Diego State University and a PhD in Public Health, Health Behavior from the joint program at UC San Diego and San Diego State University. She worked for 10 years at San Diego State University on NIH-funded behavioral epidemiological surveys and behavioral interventions. She completed a post-doctoral fellowship with the National Institutes of Health, Office of Behavioral and Social Science Research. Veronica has broad experience in NIH-funded research in tobacco control, nutrition, physical activity, bone health and cancer screening research. 

What does this endowment mean for you and your work? 

I am excited and thankful to be the recipient of The Celia Strickland Austin and G. Kenneth Austin III Endowed Professor. It is an honor to be recognized by this endowment for my work in breast cancer. This endowment will influence the impact of my research in breast cancer by providing funds to expand our connection and work with other communities in Oregon and provide mentorship to junior researchers, especially women from under-represented communities, to advance their talents to become independent researchers. 

Why did you decide to get into this field? 

I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and French and knew that I did not want to work in a lab or translate for people. I did not know what to do, so I worked at a temp agency and was hired as an administrative assistant working at San Diego State University’s grant and contract department. I would read the abstracts of funded grants in public health and knew that I wanted to do that kind of work. I met with faculty, volunteered in their research lab, and enrolled in their MPH program. I worked 10 years in the research center designing interventions and population surveys, implementing research, and writing grants and manuscripts. I earned my PhD along the way. It was exactly what I wanted to do. 

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

I had a paper published in PLOS ONE that found the adoption of new transparent reporting standards may have contributed to a significant drop in the percentage of studies reporting positive research findings among large-budget drug trials funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. It was interesting to see how many newspapers and journals wrote about the story and how many people discussed online how new reporting requirements were changing science. Null findings are important for science and patients and prevent unnecessary replication of trials and unnecessary treatments. 

I appreciate when I see my work delivered in practice or benefit the community. I collaborate with Albany InReach Services, which serves uninsured and underinsured individuals and families in the community. Our partnership started about five years ago when they launched a community health care navigation project connecting bilingual clients to clinical and community resources. I initially worked with them to evaluate the program’s benefit in terms of patient satisfaction and kept appointments. Over the years, we have expanded our partnership and we are now working to evaluate trends in insurance status and patients’ services and outcomes from medical records and claims data. 

What do you love about your field? What energizes you? 

Public health is a multidisciplinary field that flourishes when different specialties, communities or points of view come together. Public health appreciates the intersection of fields of study, such as medicine, policy, geography, psychology, natural and social science. Public health is also heavily engaged with the community and cannot be conducted without ties to policymakers, organizations and community members. I enjoy working with individuals and organizations for change. I serve as a board member on community and policy boards locally on the safety-net clinic, Albany InReach Services; regionally as a board member for the OSU Benton County Advisory Network; and statewide on the Oregon Health Authority, Public Health Advisory Board. 

My research uses a community-engaged approach to implement and evaluate behavior change interventions across a comprehensive list of health priorities such as tobacco, nutrition, exercise, cancer screening and patient navigation. I enjoy being able to translate my work and expertise into other areas. For example, I use my experience with behavior change interventions and apply it to a program to reduce environmental exposure. The same principles of behavior change used in tobacco or exercise studies can similarly change behavior to reduce risk and improve health following environmental exposure to contaminants.    

I was recently awarded an NIEHS grant (with co-PI Molly Kile) to adapt and test the scalability of a behavior change intervention with well owners to treat wells contaminated with arsenic, nitrate or lead and implemented through the OSU Extension Service. This research built upon my prior work that assessed the effect of health navigation programs on health and economic status among bilingual, bicultural persons with low health literacy in a rural, safety-net clinic. If successful, we would create an evidence-based program that could be disseminated and implemented in Extension sites across the United States. 

How is your work making life better? 

My work can take information learned from large population studies and apply it to clinical practice or a community program. For example, an under-researched problem with mammography screening is interval breast cancers. Interval breast cancers are aggressive cancers that develop in between regular mammography screening visits. I assessed longitudinal data from the Women’s Health Initiative and found approximately one-third of breast cancers were interval cancers. Within one year of a negative screen, those with interval cancers had increased tumor size, clinical stage and lymph node involvement and worse survival than screen-detected breast cancers. However, little is known about women’s experience with interval breast cancer.  

In partnership with Samaritan Cancer Resources Center across three counties in Oregon, we will explore women and providers’ experiences with interval breast cancers. For instance, how and by whom are these cancers detected? Where or when do women experience the most need and barriers to care? Information learned from this process can determine if interval breast cancers are a concern for our community and what types of programs, patient supports or other educational resources might be needed for women and providers. 

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

My mentors would tell me to try for everything – grants, publications, awards, jobs, etc. It seems that some people are lucky and achieve everything. But that is probably only because you don’t see all their failures – just their successes. They also told me to enjoy the work that I was doing and to have fun doing it. 

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

It is OK to be bold and try something that’s not in your comfort zone. I have found that some of my best work started with a crazy research question or idea. 

What are your favorite activities outside of work? 

I live in Corvallis with my husband and two children, and we enjoy outdoor family outings to the beach or the mountains.