This fall, we welcome Assistant Professor Susan Mello to the Communication Studies department, where she will be teaching courses at the intersection of communications and health. We recently asked her about her courses, her research, and the future of her field.
What courses will you be teaching at CAMD?
Starting this fall, I will be teaching a common requirement course entitled Communication Theory (COMM 1225), which provides a general introduction to core concepts in communication research. The material covers roughly 100 years of scholarly work in the field – beginning with studies on WWII propaganda up to present-day research into the effects of social media. It’s one of my favorite courses to teach because it covers a broad array of topics (i.e., politics, health, race, violence, the environment) while preparing students for a wide range of future coursework and career trajectories.
Starting Spring 2014, I’ll also be teaching an upper-level course on how to develop and evaluate effective health communication campaigns. Students will learn to ground health interventions in established health promotion theory and research while gaining hands-on experience in the field. It’s a great course for students interested in advertising, public relations, journalism, and/or marketing.
What is the focus of your research?
My scholarly interests lie at the intersection of health communication, risk, and behavior change. Most recently, I’ve been investigating pediatric environmental health information in the mass media and its potential to prime certain perceptions and protective behaviors among new mothers (i.e., purchasing BPA-free baby bottles). While pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable to toxic threats like pesticides and lead paint, very little communication research has focused on this particular population. As government agencies, manufacturers, media sources, and audiences increasingly turn their attention to such risks, I see great opportunities for original and meaningful empirical work in this area – particularly in the Greater Boston area where these threats are (unfortunately) pervasive.
What are some of the most interesting developments in health communication happening now?
Today, Americans have access to more health information than ever before. As new studies emerge touting the risks and benefits of different health behaviors (e.g., eating organic food, smoking e-cigarettes), scientific evidence is shared – and often debated – in public forums. Risk information gleaned from mass media (think: Dr. Oz), sought from websites like WebMD, and/or overheard during interpersonal conversations all have the potential to impact our daily health-related decisions. Health communication scholars face the exciting (and somewhat daunting) challenge of mapping these diverse routes of influence. Understanding how different audiences interact with this vast information environment is the only way we can effectively harness the power of communication to improve public health.
What special projects do you plan to work on while at Northeastern?
At Northeastern, I look forward to forging collaborative relationships for teaching and research into cancer prevention with local institutions, including the Harvard School of Public Health, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and the Boston Public Health Commission. I am also actively developing a research program to examine whether print messages can increase awareness of “invisible” risks, such as the flu virus and pesticides on produce, by using vivid imagery.
Anything else you’d like to add?
As a Massachusetts native, I couldn’t be happier to continue teaching and conducting research back home. But as a Boston College alumna, I know I’ll feel conflicted once the Beanpot rolls around!