Jennifer Mendel Sheldon believes good communication is essential to public health.
What’s your role in public health?
I’m a project director at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. I manage a program of grant-funded research projects with Dr. Noel Brewer’s Health Cognition and Behavior Lab.
In my role, I’m involved in all phases of research, including writing research grants, planning, designing and implementing the research studies (including activities like national online surveys, qualitative interviews and complex randomized controlled trials), disseminating findings through manuscripts and presentations, and managing projects’ progress to ensure they’re doing quality work on time and on budget!
Can you describe your focus area in one sentence?
My passion is advancing cancer prevention and control.
My main research focus area is discouraging tobacco use, which is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States and worldwide. I also provide senior management experience to research projects across multiple health communication topics.
I helped submit the grant proposal and now manage the newly funded program, “Improving Provider Announcement Communication Training (IMPACT),“ which examines ways to increase human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination uptake. This vaccine that could potentially prevent 32,100 cancers ever year in the U.S.
What brought you to public health?
I studied advertising and journalism as an undergraduate and always wanted to work in health communication for the Truth campaign for teen smoking prevention. After gaining experience in advertising and learning more about the importance of research to inform social marketing, I discovered public health as a field and became passionate about the importance of using health communication to address critical public health problems like cancer prevention.
This led me to pursue my Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with a focus in health behavior. I love that with an MPH degree I can continue to expand my focus areas and apply skills across multiple research topics with the same goal of improving public health. My work is always interesting!
How have you pivoted in response to the coronavirus pandemic?
I feel extremely lucky, because I’ve been able to work 100% remotely during the pandemic, and our research plans have not been significantly impacted. We were able to modify a few research activities that originally were planned to be done in-person and instead conducted them over the phone or Zoom. We also have had the flexibility in our project timelines to delay some activities that need to be in-person (e.g., an upcoming randomized clinical trial where we place health warnings on vapers’ devices and study their behavior).
I also had the opportunity to contribute to a unique and timely study about messaging on COVID-19 and tobacco use (Grummon et al., 2020). Our study found that messages linking smoking with COVID-19 may hold promise for discouraging smoking and may have the added benefit of also discouraging vaping.
Another way I’ve pivoted is with my communication approach — being very intentional that our teams reduce the number of emails we send and that we keep Zoom meetings short and productive, because both can easily cause burn out. For example, what meetings could just be an email? On the flip side, which topics are better suited for quick updates at a meeting, sparing people from reading yet another email?
Another big lesson learned is that we can greatly reduce the amount of paper we use for printing. I’ve gone almost two years without a printer.
Who are you when you’re at home?
Most recently, Mama! I became a mother during the pandemic, and when I’m not working, I’m having the best time soaking up every minute of exploring the world with my baby.
I enjoy playing tennis (I’m co-captain for a U.S. Tennis Association team), hiking, going to concerts, traveling and cooking with my husband. We got an NYT Cooking subscription and enjoy picking a new recipe to try each week!
I also love a good podcast. Some of my go-tos include SmartLess, Armchair Expert, Maintenance Phase and Revisionist History. I love coffee shops — my local favorite is Caffé Driade — and yummy scones. And I have been known to spend hours chatting on the phone with my family and friends, especially during the pandemic when we can’t be together in person.
Read more interviews in The Pivot series.