Exploring inequalities in health through cognitive science and family conversation

Doctoral candidate Mary E. Andrews believes that personal stories can help people live healthier lives.

As an undergraduate, Mary E. Andrews thought she’d become a nurse, working with patients face-to-face, but after starting her studies in nursing, she soon found herself captivated by the neuroscience behind people’s health decisions. She is now in the doctoral program at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication.

In May, Andrews, who uses cognitive science to understand the effects of tobacco-related messaging in America, stepped out of the lab and into her great aunt Helen’s home to talk about Helen’s experiences with smoking.

Mary Andrews as a baby on her aunt’s lap.
Mary E. Andrews and her great aunt Helen. (Image: Courtesy of Mary E. Andrews)

“I’m a Black mixed-race woman and both of my Black grandparents—my paternal grandparents—died from tobacco-related cancers, while my white maternal grandparents have not, even though they all had a similar upbringing,” Andrews says.

Helen, Andrews’s paternal great aunt, grew up at a time when nearly half of American adults smoked cigarettes. At the same time, the tobacco industry was aggressively marketing menthol cigarettes to Black Americans, by donating to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and printing ads in Black newspapers and magazines.

“As a researcher, I see these state and national trends on how the tobacco industry has harmed marginalized populations, and as a person, I see that too in my own life and family,” she says.

Interviewing her great aunt is a departure from Andrews’ normal research methods. While most of her past research has looked at tobacco messaging from a quantitative perspective, Andrews is working on a personal project exploring racial health disparities within her own family.

“I’ve always wanted to dig into my family's experiences growing up with more sexist and racist policies, to get a chance to talk to them about their own personal identity and how that's related to health,” Andrews says. “As I finish other research, I’ve finally made the time to do that.”

As a joint member of the Communication Neuroscience Lab and the Health Communication & Equity Lab, Andrews studies how tobacco advertising affects the health of groups disproportionately targeted by the tobacco industry—namely Black Americans, members of the military, LGBTQ+ populations, and people with a low socioeconomic status.

She also explores how neuroscience can detect and explain biological reactions to those health messages in all people and how better health communication and tobacco restrictions could reduce health disparities.

“In my research, I’m trying to find ways to increase exposure to messages that help you engage in behaviors that improve health, such as getting you to not smoke or getting you to visit a doctor,” Andrews says. “But my research also involves exposing the effects of bad or harmful communication, like heavily advertising cigarettes at a store cash register.”

This story is by Hailey Reissman. Read more at Annenberg School for Communication.