Kathryn Derose

Kathryn Derose

Kathryn Derose, professor of community health education at UMass Amherst, conducts community-partnered research to address issues of health inequality.

As a young adult, Kathryn Derose explored a range of possible career paths related to her various interests. But when she learned of public health research—which entails creating the conditions for people to live healthy lives—she was sold on a career in the field.

For Derose, this work is best accomplished when partnered with communities most affected by health inequalities. Today, as a professor of community health education at the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, she conducts community-based participatory research around the United States and Latin America to address a wide range of public health issues, including HIV prevention and care, obesity prevention, food insecurity,  and physical activity promotion. She has authored more than 140 scientific publications based on her research and was a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

A native of Iowa City, Iowa, Derose has a bachelor's degree in comparative area studies focused on Latin America from Duke University, where she also completed pre-med requirements. Before pursuing further education, she lived in Ecuador for over five years, initially as a Fulbright Scholar and later as part of a health and development NGO working with Indigenous communities. She then went on to earn a master's in public health, specializing in population and family health, from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and—following an interlude working as a project coordinator for public health research studies—got a PhD in health services research from UCLA.

I strongly believe that addressing health inequalities […] starts with the perspectives and insights of the community most affected by the issues.

Kathryn Derose, professor of community health education

Derose’s winding path to academic research informs her approach to her work studying structural determinants of health and designing and rigorously evaluating novel public health interventions to target areas of concern.

“I strongly believe that addressing health inequalities is really multifaceted and multisectoral,” she says. “It starts with the perspectives and insights of the community most affected by the issues [and addresses the] dimensions of the issue, as well as the solutions.”

In her research, Derose partners with public and private healthcare providers and institutions, advocacy and policy groups, and organizations with deep roots in communities. Playing a central role are faith-based organizations, which she says have “incredible reach and longevity” with certain communities in the United States and Latin America.

“Faith leaders often have strong moral authority and can be powerful advocates for improving health and tackling social justice issues within communities,” she explains.

Derose uses a mix of quantitative and qualitative research methods to study issues of health inequality and evaluate potential solutions. For example, she is currently leading a national, full-scale efficacy trial of an integrated urban gardening and peer nutritional counseling intervention in the Dominican Republic, which seeks to improve HIV care outcomes among people with food insecurity. Supported by a five-year, $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the study is being conducted in partnership with the World Food Programme, the Dominican Republic's Ministries of Agriculture and Public Health, the National HIV/AIDS Council, and the National Health Service.

“These partners are involved in all stages of the research. They are not only critical to the study, but—if this intervention is found to be effective on a national scale—to advocating for funding to scale up such programs in the future,” she says.

In the United States, Derose is currently leading another large study, with NIH funding totaling $4.4 million, of an integrated church- and park-based intervention to increase physical activity among Latino adults living in low-income communities in LA. In this study, Derose is partnering with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (which has about four million members, around three-quarters of whom are Latino), the LA parks system, and the Cal State LA School of Kinesiology.

"We’re hoping to create more linkages and synergies between the churches and parks—both organizations serving critical functions in their communities—while improving the physical fitness of community members and offering the Cal State students academic credit and practical experience leading physical fitness initiatives,” she says. “The kinesiology student intern model is based on a very successful program at another Cal State school called 3 WINS.”

Derose has found that community partners are invaluable in her work to improve conditions for people to live healthy lives, but she stresses that building these partnerships can take years. And while these groups, particularly faith-based organizations, can have a powerful influence in communities, Derose says that they’re not going to solve all the shortcomings of our public policy in terms of addressing health needs.

Derose’s work represents a long-standing commitment to improving health equity and helping to reverse “decades of disinvestment and neglect of certain communities.”

“Reducing health inequalities requires addressing the upstream, structural issues that created them,” she says. “This involves deep investments of resources and time.”


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