Editor’s note: In celebration of Black History Month (Feb. 1 - March 1), UTHealth Houston is featuring outstanding members of our community.
Kymberle Sterling, DrPH, MPH, has spent her career combating the tobacco industry’s efforts to attract new smokers.
Sterling is something of an anti-marketer, looking for ways to fight tobacco’s marketing efforts to make their products attractive to teens as well as its targeted efforts to sell certain products within minority communities, including African American, Hispanic, and LGTBQ+.
She is a tenured associate professor at UTHealth School of Public Health-Dallas, a public health behavioral scientist, and a tobacco-related health disparities researcher. Sterling is also the first African American woman to be awarded tenure at the school.
“I’m proud of the work my research team is conducting,” Sterling said. “We’ve learned how the industry is promoting its products to these communities and how youth and young adults in those communities perceive these products. We use our research findings to develop communication tools to help young people resist tobacco advertising when they are exposed to it.”
Sterling said she loves research because it allows her to be both analytical and creative.
“For me, it’s a perfect marriage between problem-solving, creativity, and the ability to help someone. It taps into what my purpose is on this Earth — to help people,” Sterling said.
“Applied public health research works to develop interventions and programs to help people. I have many tools at my disposal, and the creative part of that is deciding which tools are best to use to address a public health problem. I have community-based participatory research strategies in my toolbox to help me engage and collaborate with my target population. Along with input from my target population, I have behavioral science theories and frameworks to help me better understand the motivations of human behavior. I have the processes for developing a health promotion intervention or program and evaluating how effective that program is. To me, it’s like an artist having their paint and canvas in front of them, waiting to create their next piece. I’m able to use all of these tools to figure out what sort of program to create to best answer my research question, and I’m able to create something that hopefully benefits people.”
Sterling said she started her journey at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she earned a Bachelor of Science in cell and molecular biology. Initially, her goal was to become a pediatrician, but her experiences at the institution steered her toward public health. Her roommate attended an information session on public health and excitedly shared the news.
“It was everything we were looking for in a medical career,” Sterling said. “I began my studies at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, and I absolutely loved it.”
While earning her Master of Public Health at Tulane, Sterling met a foundational mentor who steered her into research, Bettina M. Beech, DrPH, MPH, who had earned her doctorate at UTHealth School of Public Health.
“She was a phenomenal researcher and person. In her course, I was bit by the research bug. I was able to realize my love of writing, problem-solving, public health, and helping people and how they intersected,” Sterling said.
Beech’s mentorship also guided Sterling to the Houston campus of the School of Public Health, where she earned her DrPH in Community Health Sciences.
“Dr. Beech was the only African American instructor I had at Tulane. Seeing someone who looked like me as a professor was so inspirational. She told me about her journey as a doctoral student in Houston, and I wanted to try it out,” Sterling said.
Sterling found her passion for helping combat tobacco use through a research project with Alfred McAlister, PhD, professor emeritus with the School of Public Health. The project included developing sections of the Texas Tobacco Prevention Initiative, a statewide initiative funded in the early 2000s through a settlement with the tobacco industry. It created tobacco prevention programs for children, including a school curriculum and a public service campaign.
“Through that project, I learned about the tobacco industry’s predatory practices and their recruitment of new users, youth and young adults, which the industry calls ‘replacement smokers,’” Sterling said. “The industry has a long history of targeting vulnerable populations: youth, African Americans, Hispanics, and LGBTQ+.”
Sterling continued in tobacco research, eventually returning to UTHealth Houston in 2018, where she teaches in the Department of Health Promotion and Behavioral Sciences. She recently completed a $1.3 million NIH grant to evaluate predictors of flavored cigar and cigarillo use. She plans to continue this work through 2027 through another NIH grant to assess the abuse liability of the industry for flavored cigar and cigarillo use.
Both products are popular within the African American community.
“The industry developed specific marketing campaigns aimed at minoritized communities,” she said. “It’s interesting to study. The tobacco industry documents show how the industry would study groups of people, learn about their culture, norms, and beliefs, and systematically normalize the use of tobacco products as a part of the groups’ practices.”
Knowing that makes the work Sterling does more rewarding.
“We know that if smoking onset is prevented by the age of 30, then we’ve prevented most tobacco-related cancer deaths,” she said. “We may not be able to reach all youth, but if we prevent smoking among some, then we’re moving in the right direction. If we can provide current smokers with the tools they need to begin the quitting process, we’re working toward avoiding or reducing many of the adverse health effects that come from smoking.”
Sterling said she feels it’s her duty to not only practice good science, but to help train and motivate the next generation of professionals.
“I’ve been so blessed to have strong female role models in my life who have molded me,” she said. “The most meaningful experiences inside and outside of the classroom have been those where someone has taken the time to share their story with me or taken the time to give me the advice to help me better myself. Those interactions have more often than not happened with women, and more often than not, they happened with women of color. If I can pour into someone the way my role models have poured into me, then I’m moving in the right direction.”
Sterling said she is especially honored to mentor people of color working to enter public health.
“As a Black woman in public health, I had very few mentors who understood what it was like to be Black in an academic space,” she said. “There aren’t many women of color conducting public health research. It’s an honor and a privilege to give back to all of my students, particularly to students with backgrounds like mine. That’s one of the reasons why mentoring is so important.”
Sterling was a part of the team from the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Advocacy (IDEA) Committee at the School of Public Health, who applied for a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to enhance diversity efforts at the school.
Sterling said her career has been rewarding beyond measure.
“I always wanted to work with and help young people,” she said. “Early on, I wanted to be a pediatrician, but I never imagined the impact I could make conducting public health research. I’m so proud of my team’s research and its impact on people’s lives.”