Dr. Erika Thompson honored with prestigious early-career research award

March 6, 2020

By Sally Crocker

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Erika Thompson, PhD, MPH, was first drawn to science in the seventh grade, when her class watched and reflected on the docudrama film And the Band Played On, based on a book about people, politics and the AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s.

The HSC Assistant Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems remembers learning that day about the outbreak’s impact and the public health responders and CDC epidemiologists who were on the front lines, searching to find solutions and save lives.

“The science of public health, and the way it merges with social justice, health policy and helping others, truly reflects discovery with a purpose. Even in grade school, it was easy to see the importance of this type of work,” Dr. Thompson said.

Dr. Thompson is being recognized as a leader in her field, to be honored this month with the prestigious Judy K. Black Early Career Research Award from the American Academy of Health Behavior (AAHB).

Each year AAHB considers whether one early-career health behavior researcher is worthy of the Black award. The award is intended to recognize younger scholars who are expected to make major contributions to scientific knowledge and professional practice during their career. Since its inaugural year in 2006, only nine outstanding scholars nationwide have received the honor.

Dr. Thompson holds an MPH degree in epidemiology and a PhD in public health, along with graduate certificates in biostatistics and maternal and child health epidemiology.

Her research is in sexual and reproductive health, and women’s and children’s health, with a primary focus on HPV vaccination, HPV prevention and contraception. Her work has been published in more than 60 peer-reviewed articles, many of which are high-impact journals, including the American Journal of Public Health, JAMA Pediatrics, Preventive Medicine, American Journal of Preventive Medicine and Women’s Health Issues.

In receiving the AAHB award at the organization’s annual conference, Dr. Thompson will present a study she recently co-authored with HSC research colleagues Dr. Dana Litt, Dr. Stacey Griner and Dr. Melissa Lewis on risks of alcohol-exposed pregnancies related to heavy-episodic drinking and contraceptive use among women ages 18-20.

“Since Dr. Thompson joined the School of Public Health faculty in 2018, I have been impressed with her work and enthusiasm as a health behavior scientist,” said Dr. Dennis Thombs, SPH Dean. “She has led several externally funded research projects of high importance, including evaluation of a child sexual abuse prevention program, a systems examination of family homelessness and other projects related to childhood education. She recently received National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding to examine contraceptive use among women experiencing homelessness, and her success as an early-career faculty member truly exemplifies her dedication to the field.”

As Director of the HSC’s MPH Maternal and Child Health program, teaching and community engagement are also a big part of Dr. Thompson’s work.

“The most rewarding part of what I do is collaborate with phenomenal community members and colleagues to try to solve public health problems, along with helping to train public health students who will be assuming those types of roles in the near future,” she said.

Mentors and role models can be key in career development and finding your path, Dr. Thompson believes, as evidenced by those who have influenced and encouraged her own direction over the years.

Especially in a world where women represent less than 30% of researchers, science is not always the career choice among girls and women. The strength of one’s social networks and access to champions and guides are important.

From that seventh grade science teacher, her professors, colleagues and research collaborators over the years to her own mother, a longtime educator and soon-to-retire elementary principal, Dr. Thompson values the advice and lessons she’s gained from each one. Her mom, in fact, was her own fifth grade teacher, with a way of making learning experiences both applied and fun.

“She once transformed the classroom into a rainforest to talk about the eco system,” Dr. Thompson said. “In my own teaching, I often try to channel that type of creativity and consider how she would approach it.”

“I feel fortunate in having known many strong, successful female role models along the way who have made me feel like, yes, I can do this,” Dr. Thompson said. “I am very grateful for the opportunities to learn from them, because the job we do in public health is about working with good people together as a team.”

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