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Researching Cancer: A Profile of Adolescent and Young Adult Scholarship, Training, and Research Lab

UTHealth Houston researchers seek to develop research on adolescents and young adults with cancer

AYA Star Research Team:
AYA Star researchers left to right: L. Aubree Shay, PhD; Andrea C. Betts, PhD; Caitlin C. Murphy, PhD; Marlyn A. Allicock, PhD

UTHealth Houston School of Public Health’s commitment to research is evident in faculty labs, research, and collaborative efforts connecting to the community led by dynamic faculty who are leading researchers in their respective fields.

One such lab is the Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Scholarship, Training, and Research (STAR) Lab. The AYA STAR Lab was formed four years ago by a team of researchers at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health to undertake the many challenges experienced by adolescents and young adults with cancer, including focusing on the disparities surrounding survivorship.

Team members include School of Public Health faculty, Andrea C. Betts, PhD; Marlyn A. Allicock, PhD; Caitlin C. Murphy, PhD; and L. Aubree Shay, PhD.

Associate Professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences, Marlyn A. Allicock, PhD says, “Each faculty member of our lab is deeply passionate and committed to research that improves the lives of cancer survivors. We’ve all been touched by cancer—whether through a diagnosis or loss of a loved one, colleague, or friend from cancer,” she continues, “We recognize that when we analyze a data set, design a program, or write a manuscript, we are not just looking at a number or something abstract but an opportunity to understand and improve the lives of survivors and their families. Our shared interests and complementary skill sets are the drivers and glue to the work we do.”

Last year the team members experienced the loss of their partner and colleague Sharice Preston, PhD, to cancer. Preston was one of the founding members of the AYA STAR Lab.

The investigative team partners with their Community Advisory Board (CAB), whose role is to help shape the direction of the AYA research. The CAB members have lived experiences with cancer, the health care system, and advocacy work, bringing a unique and authentic understanding of the gaps in AYAs’ care, priority areas for intervention, and aspects of care that work well and can be expanded.

“As an epidemiologist, I spend most days at my computer analyzing data. Working with our CAB has helped me connect these data with the people who have experienced cancer. They’ve shared their stories with me, giving me a new lens to analyze data. I hope that our partnership continues to bring deep meaning to our work”, says Caitlin Murphy, PhD, associate professor of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences.

This team’s research extends beyond traditional boundaries. Their recent publications surrounding the impact of COVID impact issues and fertility were spotlighted by the CAB during the latest meeting.

Andrea Betts, PhD, MPH, says, “A lot of our work to date has focused on birth outcomes for AYAs during or after cancer. This area is so important to the community because many patients have major questions about their ability to conceive and give birth to healthy children after receiving treatments that can impact their fertility. There have been many gaps in the evidence around this. We're working to close those gaps to help AYAs and their providers know what to expect and make informed decisions for their families.”

“There are so many aspects of our work that could be life-changing for AYAs with cancer. In our four years working together we have published around the impacts of the COVID pandemic on AYAs, fertility and pregnancy-related outcomes specific to AYAs, and prescription medication use patterns including opioids among AYAs.  In each of our projects, we work to make sure the findings apply to both AYAs and those providing their medical care,” L. Aubree Shay, PhD, MSSW.

The team of researchers is anticipating the CAB’s future involvement to include input on their grant applications.

The team members' expertise includes behavioral sciences, intervention development, epidemiology, program evaluations, and health disparities.

For more information on UTHealth Houston School of Public Health's AYA STAR Lab contact ayastarlab@uth.tmc.edu.

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