PhD Candidate in Media, Technology, and Society
Hannah Getachew-Smith is a PhD candidate in the Media, Technology, and Society program in the School of Communication. Her research focuses on the evaluation of digital health interventions, such as smartphone apps and wearables, that are designed to promote healthy behaviors and address health disparities. Hannah was recently named a Presidential Fellow, the most prestigious fellowship awarded to graduate students by Northwestern University.
How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?
My dissertation research stems from a problem I encountered while working at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to conduct research to develop and evaluate national HIV social marketing campaigns. In recent years, there has been a proliferation of health interventions to promote healthy behaviors disseminated using digital technologies (e.g., websites, smartphone apps, and wearables), but we do not have good tools to evaluate these digital health interventions to ensure that they work. My research attempts to establish more efficient, effective, and comprehensive methods for evaluating digital health interventions, which can increase access to health information for vulnerable populations and in the long-term, improve public health.
Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.
My interest in health stems from my initial plans of working in early childhood education. Entering Northwestern as an undergrad, I thought I would be a kindergarten teacher like my mother, but when I got here, I was in the inaugural SHAPE (Sexual Health + Assault Peer Educators) cohort and became a peer health educator on campus and in the Chicago Public Schools through Peer Health Exchange. From there, I minored in Global Health Studies, studied abroad and conducted research in Mexico City, interned at a health department, and decided to pursue a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree. I landed in health communication through my work conducting research to develop and evaluate national HIV prevention campaigns at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). I loved seeing the campaigns I worked on in airports, around the city, and on TV, and feeling like I was contributing to the greater good. As a health communication researcher, the most rewarding thing is being able to see the outcomes of our work.
What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?
I appreciate how my experiences as a public health practitioner and champion have enabled me to bring a unique perspective to problem-solving, having been trained in public health and now in communication, two fields that utilize similar principles but have different approaches to addressing challenges. For example, my work is very applied. I like to create something and see it in real-life. Historically, communication science as a field has been more theory-based and with less emphasis on application. I also have diverse real-world experience working at the local, state, and federal levels and I understand the challenges associated with developing a theory or an intervention in a lab setting and translating that into practice.
What is the biggest potential impact or implication of your work?
A really important aspect of my work is that much of the research program in the Health Communication Interaction Design Lab, led by Dr. Courtney Scherr, attempts to address existing health inequities by working to develop interventions to reduce disparities in different health issues, such as genetic testing, cancer care and treatment, and developmental delays in children. The goal is to be able to test and evaluate our interventions in healthcare and community settings so that they can ultimately be integrated into everyday practice to improve health outcomes among vulnerable populations.
When I earn my doctoral degree, I will be a double Wildcat, having completed my undergraduate studies here in political science and global health studies. I was drawn to Northwestern’s emphasis on interdisciplinary learning, which is crucial for anyone working in health, given the complexities of health and medicine. I also love that the lab I work in, the Health Communication Interaction Design Lab, is located in Chicago. Access to such a culturally and ethnically diverse city is incredibly important to me.
How do you unwind after a long day?
I am fortunate to live with two of my best friends, my partner David and our pup Dre, named after Andre Benjamin of the greatest musical duo of all time, OutKast. Being able to come home to walk Dre, go for a run through the many beautiful Chicago neighborhoods, and (attempt to) cook always helps me decompress after a long day.
What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?
While it is important to set goals and plan ahead, no matter what path you choose, there is no one *right* or *wrong* way to get where you are going. You likely will not always know which direction you are headed and that is okay. Uncertainty is uncomfortable but is sometimes necessary to push us to the next level. Take advantage of the wealth of free resources, including workshops, trainings, and lectures to keep learning and working on yourself. More importantly, be flexible in working to attain your goals and continue to revisit those goals to assess if your intentions and actions are aligned, and if you are not comfortable with the answer, do something differently.
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