As an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior, Heather Orom, PhD, seeks to conduct research that will help solve some of today’s most pressing social problems. “It is also important that the research is rooted in and advances our understanding of basic processes, including intergroup dynamics, discrimination, stigma and social support processes,” she said.
Orom’s primary interest is in how broad social determinants of health, such as discrimination, influence health outcomes. Currently, she is investigating the causes of racial disparities in cancer treatment. There are, for example, persistent Black-White disparities in treatment received for prostate and bladder cancer, but the root causes of these disparities are unknown. She is exploring several possible explanations including physician-patient interaction, physician bias, institutional racism and patient preference.
Orom is also interested in disparities in cancer prevention. Having documented racial/ethnic differences in perceived susceptibility for cancer, she plans to investigate the origins and consequences of these differences with Department of Community Health and Health Behavior colleague Marc Kiviniemi, PhD.
The team will explore whether the psychological experiences thought to motivate health behavior, such as perceived susceptibility for disease, explain and predict behavior in racially and socioeconomically diverse communities. “Do these constructs explain health behavior and, if not, why not? These constructs are frequently used as theoretical bases for health education and promotion programs,” she said. “Is this effective in racially and socioeconomically diverse communities?”
In addition to research on health disparities, Orom studies how communities and families respond to toxic exposure disasters and the associated health threats. Currently, she is studying both the positive and negative influences of family and community dynamics on adaptation and health behavior among residents of Libby, Mont., where there has been widespread exposure to asbestos. Orom and researchers at Kent State University are developing an intervention to improve illness self-management in people with asbestos-related disease.
Orom is a proponent of faculty-student research collaborations and encourages master of public health (MPH) students to seek out opportunities.
“MPH students have a range of possibilities to be involved in community-based public health practice and research,” she said. “Several students have been formally and informally involved in a collaborative public health initiative with the local public broadcasting station to reduce obesity in the Buffalo zip code with the highest rates of obesity. Students have been instrumental in starting, and making sustainable, a community garden in the area, and designing health promotion materials for children and program evaluation. These opportunities are in the form of field work placements, service learning projects and volunteering.
“Another group of students has been conducting a health assessment of Buffalo’s Grider Neighborhood and participating in grassroots community change,” said Orom. “Others have participated in clinic-based research on cancer treatment decision-making. Our students routinely present at local and national conferences.”