ASU grad researches health communication, advocacy

By

Kristen LaRue

Editor’s note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2018 commencement

Originally from Hartford, Connecticut, Arizona State University doctoral student Katherine Morelli left her perch near the sea for the wide-open spaces of the West. She has successfully navigated the culture shock (she says it wasn’t so bad) and the uncertainty of beginning a doctoral program (she had an “aha” moment that convinced her that she was on the right trajectory).

This spring, Morelli is earning her PhD in English with a concentration in writing, rhetorics and literacies. Her dissertation shares findings from a yearlong investigation of the practices and beliefs of five health navigators working in a local pediatrics clinic.

According to the American Medical Association, a health navigator or patient advocate is “someone whose primary responsibility is to provide personalized guidance to patients as they move through the health care system.” Studies show that such advocates are of great benefit in improving patient care, especially for members of typically marginalized groups.  

The clinic where Morelli did her observations serves large numbers of refugee families experiencing a range of health care challenges — a setting certainly appropriate for a navigator to work.

Morelli’s research demonstrates that collaboration, creativity and cultural sensitivity can go far in enhancing and improving navigator effectiveness. Her findings also show the value of interdisciplinary and cross-institutional research and in combining the different methodologies employed in the social sciences and the critical humanities.

Morelli’s academic advisers laud her rigorous and unique approach to exploring health advocacy in a fraught political climate.

“[Her] research agenda,” said Doris Warriner, an associate professor of English and Morelli’s dissertation chair, “serves as a timely and impactful contribution to scholarship that investigates and responds to locally relevant priorities in spite of the constraints of the historical moment.”

Morelli has been invited to speak on her innovative approaches to inquiry in graduate seminars at ASU and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is also a talented and devoted instructor of first-year composition (including to multilingual writers), professional/business writing, and a core course for the undergraduate concentration in writing, rhetorics and literacies.

The spring 2018 graduate sat down with us to discuss her journey to ASU and what changes she will navigate next.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field? 

Answer: I’m not really sure when the “aha” moment was. I know that I never would have pursued this degree or my master’s if I did not encounter faculty in my fields that encouraged me to do so and made me feel like I could. But I know there was an “aha” moment when I realized or started to consider myself as a potential researcher and scholar.

It was my first year in the doctoral program at ASU, and I was still a bit uncertain about my decision to pursue this degree. I started thinking I should have kept teaching writing at my prior university. But then I was offered a position as a research assistant on a very exciting project that ended up shaping my research agenda and dissertation project. It was this experience, which involved working closely with faculty in my fields of study and the local community, that encouraged me to get excited about research and the possibility of being a teacher and scholar.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: When I moved here I really didn’t know what to expect, but coming from the Northeast I was curious. I wondered how I would navigate the politics of this state and university. I wondered what it would be like to live close to the U.S.-Mexico border and what kinds of lives people were living here. To my surprise, it was not as difficult or jarring as I had thought it would be. Moving out here alone certainly wasn’t easy and it took time to get used to being here, but I don’t regret the decision. Five years later, I can say that living in the desert, living in Phoenix and near the border has been a valuable learning experience on so many levels and one that has helped me to grow as an individual, educator and scholar.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: There are a number of reasons I decided to go with ASU to pursue my doctoral degree. First, I wanted a change in environment. I spent most of my life living in various states in the northeast U.S. and I really wanted to step outside of my comfort zone personally, educationally and professionally. As a doctoral student in particular, I knew that ASU had a reputation for innovative research and teaching and was impressed by the kind of scholarship, projects and programmatic initiatives that the university has fostered as well as the potential for funding opportunities. As a teacher I was drawn to ASU because of the diverse student populations, majors and course offerings. There are so many directions students can take their education at ASU, and that was exciting to me.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans are to explore opportunities within and outside of academia. This will include applying for tenure-track assistant professor positions this coming fall as well as seeking out research and writing opportunities within the field of health care and education. In general, I hope to continue to teach and pursue a research agenda that will yield community-based advocacy and publishable findings.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: There are so many problems on our planet right now that it is difficult to respond to this question. And considering how complex these problems are it is also difficult to know how to even approach tackling them. One thing I would like to see is major policy reform within our health care system, particularly when it comes to health insurance and access to care. In an ideal world, everyone would have access to quality health care and I would like to figure out ways to work towards this ideal.

Doris Warriner contributed to this profile.