Interview with Courtney S. Thomas, Assistant Professor, Department of Community Health Sciences and Bunche Center Faculty Associate

The overall goal of my research is to identify the social, psychological, and biological factors that shape health risk and resilience among African Americans across the life course. I focus primarily on understanding the ways that stress and coping contribute to disparities in both mental and physical health outcomes, and using this knowledge to improve health and well-being among this population.

My current research has really evolved over time, but was initially inspired by my life experiences. I am originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. As a young adult, I experienced Hurricane Katrina and all of the loss and devastation it brought to the city. Through that experience, I begin to recognize the impact of stress on individuals’ health, but more so, I realized how much resilience–the ability to persevere and even thrive in the face of adversity–really can make a difference when individuals lack material resources. So that really motivated me to want to understand how this works across various subgroups among the Black population–particularly across gender, social class, and neighborhood groups. This interest led me to pursue a PhD in Sociology at Vanderbilt University. After graduation, I came to UCLA as a UC President’s Postdoctoral Fellow. This provided the opportunity to work with mentors across disciplines and integrate knowledge from public health, aging, and psychology.

One of my most interesting projects to date has definitely been my RSA project–RSA stands for “racial self-awareness'” which characterizes the experiences of African Americans who live and/or work in predominately White spaces. As a graduate student, I first became interested in assessing the subtle experiences of race-based stress that we sometimes forget about. So beyond really blatant racial discrimination and even microaggressions, I wanted to understand the more nuanced ways racial minority status could impact individuals’ lived experiences and impact their health and overall well-being. I began by conducting qualitative interviews with African Americans in Nashville, Tennessee and have since focused on developing these insights into survey measures that we can use to evaluate the long-term health impact of these experiences. Results thus far have shown that RSA has a great influence on individuals’ lives–shaping social interactions in numerous ways.

Through this work, I hope to identify the various sources of risk, but more importantly, help us to harness the resources and pathways to resilience to improve quality of life. As a new faculty member at UCLA, I’m looking forward to opportunities to collaborate with students and faculty with the same goals of improving outcomes–both in the community and here on campus.