Two New Faculty Members Join HBHE

December 01, 2004
“When we set out to recruit the top young people in health communication research last year,” said HBHE department chair, Jo Anne Earp, “never did we dream that we’d get not one, but two, of the best assistant professors in the field.” Yet that’s exactly what happened. After a long, highly competitive search, two new assistant professor appointments will add substantially to HBHE expertise in important areas. Please join us in welcoming Deb Tate and Noel Brewer.Deborah Tate, PhD, who is appointed jointly in HBHE and Nutrition, comes to UNC from Brown University Medical School and Miriam Hospital, where she was assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior. Deb earned her doctoral degree (1999) in clinical psychology from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. In her five years at Brown, Deb developed an impressive research program using the Internet as a foundation for delivering dietary advice to people seeking to lose weight. Her research involves interventions with both human counselors who guide behavior change via email and chat rooms and “virtual” counselors that provide tailored feedback to promote weight reduction and maintenance for adults and adolescents.

“I feel so fortunate to be joining the faculty at UNC,” said Deb. “There is such a wealth of talent here. Coming out of a clinical psychology program, I have always been on the ‘fringe’ compared to other [obesity] researchers because I’ve been interested in developing interventions that are disseminable. Joining the HBHE and Nutrition departments in the School of Public Health feels like a perfect match.”

Deb, who is getting settled in Chapel Hill, is already getting her research program in HBHE up and running, and students and faculty alike are lining up to work with her. Assistant professor Laura Linnan, who also came to HBHE via Brown University Medical School and Miriam Hospital, teamed up with Deb this past summer to submit two major grant proposals to the NIH. They just recently got word that one of them will be funded (an intervention designed to control obesity in community colleges). “I’m just delighted that a friend and colleague from my time at Brown will be joining us in HBHE,” said Laura. “She’s a superb researcher, teacher, and colleague – plus, students will be very fortunate to work with Deb.” HBHE Distinguished Alumni Professor Barbara Rimer, who headed the search committee that brought Noel Brewer and Deb to HBHE, agrees. “With the department’s interest in designing effective interventions, and the School’s commitment to interdisciplinary efforts to reduce the epidemic of overweight and obesity, Deborah is a superb addition. She has just the right combination of cutting edge science and a really creative approach to intervention development using new media.”

Noel Brewer, PhD, recently joined the department after completing a doctoral degree in psychology (2002) and postdoctoral position in human ecology at Rutgers University. Over the last seven years, Noel has done research in the areas of medical decision-making, risk perception, and health symptoms or, as he himself puts it, “the cognitions that guide people’s health-related judgments and decisions.” He has studied these issues in diverse populations that include doctors, patients, Gulf War veterans, residents of Superfund clean-up sites. Most recently, Noel has been carrying out innovative studies on anchors – i.e., uninformative “starting” numbers or statistics that can strongly change people’s opinions and judgments, regardless of the significance of those numbers – and their impact on health choices. In a second, related, area, Noel researches ways that health communication can increase or decrease the health symptom that people report. In his ground-breaking studies on unexplained symptoms in Gulf War veterans, for example, he found that soldiers exposed to a greater number of chemical alarms (even false alarms) during the war later reported more unexplained symptoms than their fellow veterans.

Although Noel didn’t receive his academic training in a school of public health, the HBHE search committee quickly recognized the direct connection between his work and the department’s strengths and interests. As Barbara Rimer notes, “Noel brings a fascinating background, not only his deep roots in studying the communication of risk information as part of his psychology training, but his strong grounding in a number of areas, including economics and AIDS interventions. Much of what we do in public health ultimately requires communication about risk, so Noel’s work is really on the leading edge of health behavior and public health. And both Deborah and Noel are great collaborators. That is important as we build even stronger interdisciplinary programs here at UNC.”

Having been trained in departments of psychology and human ecology, Noel’s decision to join HBHE – and to cast his allegiance to public health – represents an important shift in his professional life. We asked him what the “deal clincher” was, i.e., what was it about HBHE that made him want to join our department? “When I was on the job market, I was looking for an academic setting that prized the theoretical rigor typical of psychological research while also following through with its equally important public health applications. Few psychology departments do this, but HBHE does. What’s more, with its particular constellation of faculty, HBHE is truly unique – a fantastic place to be!”

Jo Anne summed up what these two new hires mean for the department. “Recruiting Barbara Rimer to UNC ‘jump started’ HBHE’s – and the University’s – new program in health communication. With Deb Tate and Noel Brewer’s addition to the HBHE faculty, we are certain that this area of concentration will be a major draw not only for public health students but other students from across the university, as well as for other new faculty with an interest in communication.” Barbara herself agreed. “Both Noel and Deborah are terrific people, committed to research, teaching, service, and skilled in collaborating across disciplines. We are delighted that they have joined HBHE!”

For further information please contact Catherine Vorick either by phone at 919-966-3918 or by email at