Get to Know Keynote Speaker Dr. Angela Odoms-Young

Published: October 5, 2022

This year for the Philip R. Nader Legacy of Health Lectureship, we are excited to introduce our keynote speaker, Dr. Angela Odoms-Young, Associate Professor and Director of the Food and Nutrition Education in Communities Program at Cornell University. Her research centers on understanding the social and structural determinants of dietary behaviors in low-income populations and black, indigenous, and people of color and identifying culturally appropriate programs and policies that promote health equity, food justice, and community resilience. Dr. Odoms-Young has over 20 years of experience partnering with communities to improve nutrition and health, and she has served on numerous advisory committees and boards, including the Institute of Medicine committees, to revise the food packages provided for WIC and the Council on Black Health. Dr. Odoms-Young currently serves as the inaugural Equity Visiting Scholar at Feeding America.

In her talk, "Applying a Liberation Nutrition Research Lens to Address Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Dietary Behaviors and Related Health Outcomes: Implications for Research, Practice, and Training," Dr. Odoms-Young looks to examine the complex mechanisms linking structural oppression and diet. To provide a bit more background before her presentation, Dr. Odoms-Young answered a few questions for us to learn more about her research and focus:

1. I understand that life is full of factors that push and pull us in different directions, but what do you think ultimately shaped your research focus?

“The focus of my research has been driven by the intersection of divine intervention, my personal experience, and previous research opportunities.  My research career actually started when I was in high school working as a summer research intern on a project about anerobic exercise and cardiovascular disease in an exercise physiology lab at a local college, Chicago State University. The program was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation to encourage students of color to pursue research careers in STEM. Honestly, as a high school sophomore, I was more interested in the stipend vs. the topic, but my enthusiasm grew once I started doing the work. I continued doing research in nutrition biochemistry with my advisor as an undergraduate student, specifically examining the links between alcohol and breast cancer, with the support from the Summer Research Opportunities Program (SROP).

However, my current research interests started when I was in graduate school.  After my first three years, I became less interested in working with animal models and basic research, and more focused on the community.  I volunteered at a local pantry and also became keenly aware of the significant disinvestment that was happening in my neighborhood back home, including the loss of food retail and other businesses which made it harder to access basic amenities and services. Grocery stores turned into dollar stores and several locally owned businesses closed.  This increased my desire to explore a topic to understand intervention approaches that could impact the community, so I switched my major to community/human nutrition and added a minor in program evaluation and planning.  With each research study starting with my master’s thesis on understanding how residents in Syracuse public housing respond to food safety communication, my dissertation which was an ethnographic case study examining how religious communities promote and support dietary change, to my postdoctoral fellowship in community-based participatory research which explored the power of Lay Health Advisors in addressing the social determinants of health, my interests moved further upstream and policy fellowship working on welfare reform.

As a Christian, I believe that God will order our steps. Initially, I was pretty resistant to leaving the basic sciences because it had become an important part of my identity. Yet, my focus now is a better fit for my personality, engaging with communities, centering social justice in research, and examining policies and programs that help support people in living a full life, free from adversity.”

2. Your faculty profile mentions that you rely on community-based participatory research (CBPR) and that you let all aspects of your work (research, teaching, and service) complement one another. As a teacher, why do you think it is so important for students to not only lend an ear to technical expertise but also to the communities they are considering in their research?

“Yes! It is extremely important for students to learn how to partner equitability with communities in research. The lived experience voice is critical in identifying and developing approaches to solve the complex challenges within our society. My colleague, Dr. Antwi Akom at UCSF used the phrase, “Noting about us, without us”.  Technical expertise alone hasn’t been able to address the barriers to achieving population health. Our models and theories have to be informed by local and cultural knowledge.”

3. Based on your background, anyone could see that there are many issues you have the passion and knowledge to address. For others out there with an abundance of passion but only so many hours a day, can you speak to what gets your attention first, and how do you decide that?

“I would love to say that the most important projects and issues receive my attention but honestly, I am deadline driven. Before I accept projects, I ask is this optional or required. Some things are required because they are within your roles and responsibilities (such as doing budgets, which is one of my least favorite things).

For activities that are in my control, I ask myself, how is this going to help someone else, or how will this help me (i.e., grow my skill and experience, open doors of opportunity, etc.) help someone else. I am driven by the overall goal of improving society and supporting my family.”

Dr. Odoms-Young will be presenting her keynote at the UTHealth School of Public Health Houston Campus on Thursday, October 6th at 11:30am. Register to attend.

-Interview by Aaron Whittaker, 2022 Dell Health Undergraduate Scholar for the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living