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Whitney Robinson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Epidemiology


Whitney R. Robinson is figuring out why Black women in the U.S. experience worse health and healthcare than other Americans when it comes to gynecological issues, cancer, and obesity. Her research focuses on everyday challenges (such as poverty during childhood, limited health care options, parts of the country where people live, and structural racism) and how they contribute to people's risk of dealing with chronic health care issues. She believes that Black women are like "the canary in the coal mine": the kind of changes that would improve the health of Black women would dramatically improve the health of all Americans.

Robinson specializes in epidemiologic methods for health disparities research. She focuses on how and why processes of obesity and cancer development differ by sex, race, and ethnicity. The theoretical underpinning of her work is the lifecourse framework. For example, her Population Health work hypothesizes that nutritional, socioeconomic, and psychosocial exposures during critical periods in utero and during childhood have enduring effects on adult obesity development and partially explain why obesity prevalence is much greater in young U.S. Black women than in young U.S. Black men and other groups. Robinson's newer research program uses the lifecourse framework to investigate questions relevant to demography and reproductive health. This newly funded work investigates how racial/ethnic and socioeconomic inequalities in gynecologic surgery among U.S. women affect disparities in fertility as well as health disparities in several chronic diseases.

An example of Robinson's work is a series of age-period-cohort analyses of obesity prevalence. These papers resulted from an interdisciplinary collaboration of sociologists, epidemiologists, and statisticians. In these papers, Robinson and colleagues demonstrated and clarified distinctions among three methods to model age, period, and cohort effects and, additionally, found that the first generation of women born during the obesity epidemic of the 1980s is experiencing disproportionate sensitivity to the obesogenic environment compared to previous generations. They hypothesize that this increased sensitivity to the obesogenic environment is due to exposures during critical periods in utero or during early childhood.

In 2011, Dr. Robinson participated in CPC's summer-in-residence grant writing workshop for early-career faculty. This workshop helped her develop, submit and receive an NIH K01 from the National Cancer Institute to enhance her expertise as an interdisciplinary health disparities researcher, working with mentors Barry Popkin and David Guilkey. In her work, Robinson is developing and applying epidemiologic decomposition methods to identify modifiable causes of breast cancer health disparities. She has recently received two pilot awards to investigate novel causes of disparities in breast cancer incidence and mortality among U.S. women. This work builds upon Robinson's long-standing research interests in life course-based causes of health disparities in cancer incidence and the application of novel study designs.

    Last Updated: 2019-12-20