Q: When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
A: I knew that it was going to be in one of these realms: music, working with kids, or trying to make the world a better place in some way. I didn’t see a clear career path with music and while I love both kids and teaching, my elementary student teaching experience helped me realize that that was not the path for me. So I pursued my interests, which were in social psychology at the time.
I feel like there are some lessons here: It’s not a straight path to your ultimate destination, and pursue something that you love. We all spend more time at work than almost anywhere else, so it’s important to have a career that you find interesting, enjoyable, and rewarding.
Q: Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose your field of study.
A: I have always been fascinated by human behavior. I first stumbled upon psychology in high school and it really piqued my curiosity. Ultimately, I was drawn to health behaviors, for which there was a big focus in my doctoral program at the University of Rhode Island. After graduation, I landed in a postdoctoral research position at the University of Kentucky, where I got exposed to health communication. And I thought, This is it. This is what I want to study going forward.
Q: Tell us about a time you encountered a tricky problem. How did you handle it and what did you learn from it?
A: One of the big areas my students and I are tackling is e-cigarettes and vaping — how do we effectively communicate with young people about vaping? The industry has fomented an epidemic by convincing young people that vaping is harmless and will make their lives better, but these are false perceptions. We have to reposition vape product perceptions and help young people see that vaping can harm their lungs, their brains, their future, and even their pocketbooks. One of the things we have learned from our work is that effective communication is both a science and an art. It takes the right mix of both research and creativity to get it right.
Q: Describe your research in 5 words.
A: Communicate health effectively with impact.
Q: What are your passions outside of research?
A: I love dogs and have a goldendoodle named Rhody — in honor of the state of Rhode Island where I went to school and met my wife Elisa. I play guitar and sing songs with my kids, who are both picking up instruments of their own (Jonah plays drums and Eva plays piano). I also play tennis with a great group of friends at the UNC Farm. It’s so much fun and great exercise, too!