UIC Woman of the Year wants to help others get healthy
Why do people take actions they know are bad for their health?
That’s the question Robin Mermelstein wants to answer with her research.
“I’m trying to understand how to motivate, mobilize and help people to promote their health and reduce things that are unhealthy, like smoking, not exercising and having a poor diet,” said Mermelstein, professor of psychology.
Mermelstein, UIC’s Woman of the Year, has dedicated her career to finding answers to important health questions. She will be honored at a reception, hosted by the Chancellor’s Committee on the Status of Women, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday in the Thompson Rooms, Student Center West.
Mermelstein joined UIC as an assistant professor in 1987 after receiving her Ph.D. at the University of Oregon and finishing a clinical internship at Rush University Medical Center.
“There was a great opportunity to build on what started as a prevention research center at the School of Public Health,” she said. “It was a very small one-room office. Our goal was to develop health-related research on prevention of disease and promotion of health.”
That center flourished to become UIC’s Institute for Health Research and Policy, which Mermelstein has directed since 2008. The multidisciplinary institute was awarded more than $18 million in external research funding in 2014 for projects on topics such as tobacco use among adolescents and young adults, the role sugar-sweetened beverages play in childhood obesity and how the physical environment can promote or deter physical activity across lifespan.
“Today’s challenges are really quite complex and require researchers coming together with a lot of different perspectives,” Mermelstein said. “We’ve created a collaborative environment where people can break out of their silos and solve problems in an intellectually rich environment.”
Tobacco dependency a complex problem
Most of Mermelstein’s research is related to tobacco, the leading preventable cause of illness and death in the U.S.
“Tobacco dependency is something that’s a complex problem,” she said. “You need to understand the intersection of the biological, psychological and social causes, from cells to society.”
Her most recent longitudinal study focuses on tobacco risk factors among adolescents and young adults, as well as the use of tobacco alternatives, such as hookahs and electronic cigarettes.
“A lot of teens may start smoking out of curiosity and to help achieve a sense of belonging,” she said. “Before they know it, they keep smoking because they experience mood benefits, such as enhancing pleasure or reducing negative moods. Nicotine is one of the most addicting substances known to man.”
In addition to her research, Mermelstein also teaches graduate-level courses in clinical psychology.
“I really try to get students excited and thinking about research and how they can make a difference,” she said.
Mermelstein and her husband, John Karesh, a physician, live in Aurora. Their son, Daniel, 19, is studying finance and economics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
She doesn’t have much spare time, but when she finds some, Mermelstein enjoys going to the theater and being active outdoors with her family.
“We do a lot of hiking and biking in forest preserves,” she said. “We have a lot of adventures.”