Himmelfarb Headlines - February / March 2022

Faculty Profile - Interview with Sherrie Wallington, Assistant Professor, Health Disparities & OncologyFaculty Profile - Interview with Sherrie Wallington, Assistant Professor, Health Disparities & Oncology

Himmelfarb Library continues this feature in our newsletter that lets us become better acquainted with our friends and colleagues at the George Washington University. In this issue we learn more about Sherrie Wallington.

Describe the teaching and research you currently do in the GW School of Nursing’s Policy, Populations and Systems department.
As Assistant Professor of Health Disparities and Oncology in the Policy, Populations and Systems department, I teach and conduct research on health communication, health literacy, social determinants of health, and community-based participatory research strategies that focuses on prevention, health disparities, and clinical trial recruitment and engagement. My research interest centers on cancer, particularly prostate, breast, and HPV-associated cancers. Thanks to support from The American Cancer Society, the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Cancer Institute, my work continues to be exciting and rewarding. In addition to contributing often to peer-reviewed publications, I serve as a scientific grant reviewer for the NIH and other national foundations. I also serve as a program evaluator and consultant to NIH-funded, governmental, and foundation grant award requests. 

What inspired you to work in your field?
As a child who grew up in rural North Carolina, I saw firsthand how my loved ones suffered from chronic diseases, particularly cancer. Not only were they unaware of their opportunities to receive treatment, they were distanced from knowing where to find help. Seeing a doctor in their lifetimes was rare and usually meant someone was near death if the doctor showed up. These early firsthand experiences and observations help to shape my academic, teaching, research, and community-engagement trajectory.

What brought you to GW?
When you know what you want to accomplish in an educational environment, naturally I wanted to find an institution that was constantly challenging students to go beyond the norm, to do independent research, and primarily to cross disciplines and collaborate with others to make up research teams. GW excels in fostering exactly that kind of environment. Colleagues welcome collaboration across the campus. As an educational institution I was especially proud of GW’s School of Nursing collective contributions to the transdisciplinary work related to prevention and disparities and the impact it has specifically on DC-area communities.

What’s your favorite aspect of your work?
As a “people person,” I want to be in the middle of the communities where I’m studying. The only way you can reduce disparities and achieve health equity is to be among the people you serve regularly and often. Building relationships, positive health outcomes result when the clients don’t feel like lab rabbits or experimental subjects trying out sketchy medicines or strange treatments. My personal philosophy in wanting to “bring them to my table,” is to welcome their input on how they want their table to be set. Community members are far more willing to speak up when they know they have an equitable voice in the matter. Word spreads quickly that they are helping advance medical understanding of their diseases and they participate more willingly than fearing involvement and being a victim of experimentation. It’s so rewarding to see their enthusiasm build as their fear of participating dissipates.

What is a challenging aspect of your work/research? How do you push through when you come across a challenge or setback?
It can be frustrating to any researcher that we do not have all the answers or ideas, even if we think we might. Daily, I am determined to communicate with and listen to community partners and community members. Some of my most successful work, ideas, and invocation have come from my engagement with the communities about disease prevention and disparities that could impact them. Realizing that most of our solutions can be found right within the community, I had to give up seeing the members as participants and statistical groups they fit first. Rather, I had to view them as people, study their hearts and minds, and find a way to communicate that resonates with them and gets the message across. As this is a major potential barrier or requirement for any of my studies, I know each time I try, I may only make one step of progress in gaining their trust, but every step is a forward step. Sharing progress and obstacles with my GW colleagues is another great source of resilience and encouragement. No one person is as smart as “all of us.”

What are key tips you can offer health researchers when they’re interacting with the general public?
Some helpful tips from my experience include:

•   Take the time to build relationships over time with the public/community so that you are not just doing research IN the community but doing research WITH the community. There is a difference. Reciprocal and/or sustained relationships: Entities that have a history in the community, participating and giving back to the community are considered more trustworthy than those that show up and disappear.
•   Be consistent and repetitive: Communications that repeat the information, explain it, and are consistent are perceived as more trustworthy than those that change.
•   Be authentic and transparent: Communications that are honest about uncertainties and unknowns, and that express empathy and shared experiences are perceived as more trustworthy than those that are closed or unclear about the larger situation.

Do you think the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic will change the way scientists and researchers communicate with the public?
I think the COVID-19 has already changed the way scientists and researchers communicate with the public. This pandemic has shown scientists and researchers that communicating with the public is not optional. Communication with the public must not be an afterthought or haphazard. However, when intentional, planned, and proactive, communicating with the public can serve as a reciprocal exchange of important science and health information, which contributes to health literacy and fosters trust. I think the pandemic has also shown that as scientists and researchers we may know the science but may not be the best experts at communicating it. This is why multidisciplinary teams and team science is so valuable: to have communication experts who can involve the public and communities in messaging and decisions that will impact them.

What are some lessons you think researchers can learn from this increase of contact between medical research and the public?
Increased contact and communication can: 1) help researchers, clinicians, and practitioners look outside their professional silos and better understand the structural and socioeconomic pathways that promote and impede trust, health literacy, disparities, and ultimately health equity; and 2) build capacity for creating partnerships for disseminating health interventions, particularly among marginalized groups and underserved communities.

What advice, if any, do you have for students who are just starting out?
Before diving in, focus your reflections on all the things you might want to do in life, if there were no obstacles or barriers. Where are you? How long would you want to do that job? What are you really passionate about? Choose your top three interest areas and study them intensely. One will usually emerge from the group. Remember that academics that require intense time create an equal need for play within bright minds. Create and surround yourself with a group of friends who share your interests and include a large measure of those who do not. Read books about successful people in your chosen field and determine how they approached learning the same things you’re studying now. Life is full of joys and stresses. Establish balance. Finally, practice emotional and physical self-care and it perfectly fine to always ask for help. And you need sleep every day to restore and heal your body, mind, and spirit.


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