Campus News

Doctoral student makes headway in health behavior research

Larissa Puro May 12, 2017
Derek Dangerfield
Pictured: Derek Dangerfield. Photo courtesy Barry McDaniel

From Malaysia to Baltimore to Los Angeles, Derek Dangerfield has conducted research around the world—and can now add a Ph.D. in health behavior research to his list of accomplishments.

It’s a long list. Hailing from a working-class, single parent home in Baltimore, Md., Dangerfield graduated from Baltimore City College and earned his bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2012 from Georgetown University. During his studies at Georgetown, he also researched sexually transmitted disease at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; studied abroad in Cape Town, South Africa; and volunteered at the Brooklyn Chest tuberculosis clinic as a nursing assistant for infants and children with HIV and tuberculosis.

The confluence of sociology and medicine drove him to pursue public health—in particular, cultural health and sexual decision-making.

“My increased exposure to sexual health research and behavioral science ignited my interest in understanding the role that cultural context plays in the decision-making processes of vulnerable populations in international settings,” he writes in his USC doctoral profile.

Local, global and interdisciplinary

When he graduated, Dangerfield received a Fulbright Scholarship that funded his year-long research exploring differences in sexual risk behaviors among men who have sex with men in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

In 2013, he became a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. The fellowship supported his doctoral studies in USC’s Department of Population and Public Health Sciences, where he focused on sexual risk among African American men who have sex with men in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to be in a program that would provide interdisciplinary training in health and science,” he said. “The health behavior research program at the Keck School allowed me to gain the necessary skills I needed in research methods while still allowing me to study the social and behavioral concepts that I was I was interested in.”

Dangerfield said his biggest accomplishments at USC included publishing four manuscripts—as the primary author—and getting invited to present his work at international conferences in Malaysia and South Africa, among others.

“Surprisingly, my favorite memories are of the times it took my friends and me hours to learn statistical analytic software, wondering if we would ever make it through the program,” he said. “Now, we have mastered complex statistical methods and wonder why it was so difficult for us.” It’s reminds him: “tough times don’t last.”

Guidance and contribution

Additional words of wisdom have stuck with him over the years as he pursued his degree in just four years: “Work hard, be nice to people and go with the flow”—a mantra, of sorts, which he attributes to his primary adviser Ricky Bluthenthal, professor of preventive medicine.

Dangerfield’s faculty mentors agreed his dissertation, which focused on sexual risk among African American men who have sex with men in Los Angeles, was one of the best they had seen in years. “He is an excellent colleague and has a bright future in population health sciences,” said Jennifer Unger, professor of preventive medicine. In addition to “his impressive academic accomplishments,” she cites his work serving on the Los Angeles County Commission on HIV, the local planning council for allocating, coordinating and delivering HIV/AIDS services.

Dangerfield advises future graduates to “identify good mentors before entering doctoral training or dissertation research,” and to ensure passion is the driving force behind getting a degree—not the other way around.  “The only way to maintain your stamina is to be passionate about your work as a contribution for creating healthy communities,” he said.

With his Ph.D. behind him, Dangerfield will continue post-doctoral training as a fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing, where he hopes to develop his research and teaching agenda and impact sexual health for minority populations. “I am excited to participate in the field and see the extent to which my passion for my work impacts the field and the health of communities,” he said.