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Leading and Designing Meaningful Public Health Research

Kofoworola D. A. Williams, PhD, MPH
“Public health is colorful, flexible and promotes autonomy and agency. I am able to work independently and collaboratively to design and implement research that is useful, sustainable, multi-faceted and effective in addressing the role of racial and ethnic disparities in health and education.” - Kofoworola D. A. Williams, PhD, MPH

February 10, 2021

Dornsife alumna Kofoworola D. A. Williams, PhD, MPH is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITs) in the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. She first became interested in pursuing the field of public health in her undergraduate program.

“I became intrigued with understanding how certain social and environmental determinants negatively impact the lives of not only Black people but especially the Black men in my life,” said Williams. “I wanted to have a hand in addressing this. So, I do this work for the men in my life—my father, my brothers, my nephews, my cousins, my friends, and the random Black men I meet.

Public health also allows Williams to tap into her creative side. “Public health is colorful, flexible and promotes autonomy and agency,” she said. “I am able to work independently and collaboratively to design and implement research that is useful, sustainable, multi-faceted and effective in addressing the role of racial and ethnic disparities in health and education.”

When deciding on the Dornsife School of Public Health’s Master of Public Health (MPH) program, Williams felt it was a good fit due to its location, diverse faculty and curriculum which enables students to choose their specific area of study.

“I found faculty whose interests aligned with mine or with what I wanted to learn,” she said. “I received invaluable training from Dornsife faculty while meeting some really cool people along the way.”

After completing her MPH in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in 2016, Williams became interested in the role of health behaviors in mental health promotion. She went on to earn her PhD in Social and Behavioral Sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University in May 2020.

Her dissertation work examined the prevalence and correlates of mental health disorder symptoms among Black men and the contextual factors that impact their mental health-related help-seeking behavior.

Now in her Digital Mental Health Fellowship at Feinberg School of Medicine, Williams is researching the social and environmental risk factors that are connected to depression, anxiety, and suicide, as well as the factors that influence formal and informal help-seeking behaviors among minority men and underserved populations. She is particularly focused on creating, testing, and evaluating culturally and gender-appropriate technology-based mental health interventions on social media.

So far in her career, Williams feels most proud of her research when it makes a positive impact among her study participants who are mostly Black men, underrepresented in mental health literature and who have been historically mistreated in research.

“The way I see my efforts manifest are from moments where participants come up to me after a study to express their appreciation for the work I do,” said Williams. “I aim to create a space for their voices to be heard so when they thank me for this and for being a part of my studies, I feel like I’m doing something right, something impactful.”

Below Williams shares her advice and tips for future and current students of public health.

Dr. Williams' Tips for Future and Current Public Health Students:

  • There will be members in the field, the academy (if that’s where you choose to go) and in the communities you serve that will question you, your credentials, and the validity of your work. With this said, I encourage you to shop for the best mentor and maybe even get one for every stage of your life and/or career. The right ones will hold you down in all the important ways.
  • I encourage you to ask the hard questions, be open to the answers and open to the conversations. I encourage you to keep learning. Leverage your previous and future training and skills to assist your voice and mind in spaces where you share your work. Believe that your work is valid and just as interesting and important as the next person.
  • Establish boundaries, choose projects and tasks wisely, and make sure you love what you do. It’s a different kind of stress when you love what you do.
  • You got this and trust the process.

Learn more about Dornsife’s MPH program