Graduate Spotlight: Laura Henkhaus

Meet Laura Henkhaus, PhD ’19, Health Economics. The 2019 recipient of the USC School of Pharmacy’s Outcomes Outstanding Doctoral Scholar Award, she will deliver the doctor of philosophy address at the 112th Commencement of the USC School of Pharmacy on Friday, May 10. Here, she talks about her dissertation, her experiences at USC and what’s next for her after graduation: A postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University’s Data Science Institute and Department of Health Policy.

Tell us about your dissertation, in a nutshell. How did you become interested in the topic?

In my dissertation, I investigated how adverse childhood experiences might cause durable health and social inequalities – so that this work can inform policy and health care interventions earlier in life. I provide evidence that childhood sexual abuse caused much higher likelihood of high school dropout along with lower earnings in young adulthood. In addition, survivors of childhood abuse had worse health – physical and mental. Results suggest that treating only the mental health symptoms of childhood trauma is not enough to reduce disparities in well-being.

My interest in these topics was stimulated by media highlighting mishandling of college sexual assault cases in 2014-2015, when I was a first-year PhD student, along with an awareness of the high prevalence of sexual abuse. (In the nationally representative data I employ, 14% of adults reported history of contact sexual abuse in childhood alone.) I decided to focus on kids as the most vulnerable group.

How did you come to the decision to pursue a PhD in Health Economics at USC?

My BS is in Environmental Economics and Policy from UC Berkeley. While that was my intended major since orientation, my career goal changed wildly across fields each semester until junior year when I took my first econometrics class. Then I knew I wanted to be a researcher. I was fascinated by the breadth of questions we can attempt to answer using tools from econometrics.

I chose the Health Economics PhD program at USC for three reasons: the strong concentration of health economics faculty here as compared to traditional economics departments, the rigor of economics training compared to other applied programs, and quality of life (i.e., location in sunny Southern California and funding from a USC School of Pharmacy fellowship).

My research interests broadly include childhood circumstances and later-life health and economic well-being, mental health, and insurance design and health outcomes. The Microeconomics track made the program a good fit for me, and I am in the second cohort of this track.

Can you tell us about your post-graduation plans for a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt? What are you most looking forward to?  

At Vanderbilt, I will be in the inaugural cohort of postdocs at the Data Science Institute. Part of my time will be funded through the Dept. of Health Policy to join a team working on a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Policies for Action grant. Vanderbilt University is one of seven Policies for Action Research Hubs, and the Vanderbilt Hub recruited me to collaborate on a project to investigate the impacts of adverse childhood experiences and early intervention services on Tennessee kids’ later health and education outcomes, along with another project in which we’ll study health and educational outcomes of kids exposed to opioids in utero. At Vanderbilt, I’ll have the unique opportunity to collaborate with economists across departments, clinician-researchers from Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, and policymakers. While I’m excited about many aspects of this opportunity, I’d say I’m most looking forward to this latter connection because it is especially unique: that collaborators include partners at Tennessee’s Dept. of Health, Dept. of Education, and TennCare (Tennessee’s Medicaid program) to inform research priorities and ensure that the findings are actionable. Meanwhile, I’ll also join the community at the Data Science Institute, where I’ll get to learn from colleagues who work in development of data science methods and applications, and I’ll have support for my independent research program.

Now that your time at USC is coming to an end, how do you feel your experiences at USC have prepared you for this next chapter in your life?   

I’ll highlight two aspects of my experience at USC which have been important to my development as a researcher.

Firstly, the university houses several interdisciplinary research centers which foster collaboration across departments and attract external experts to visit as speakers. I have benefited from the relationships I built through meeting faculty and clinicians from other institutions who have spoken during the separate seminar series hosted by the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics, the Center for Economic and Social Research, and the Children’s Data Network.

Secondly, my particular program – the PhD program in Health Economics – has trained me not only in rigorous research methods but also in communicating research. While there is a place for technical jargon in academic journals, if I cannot communicate my research to people outside of my discipline, what impact can it have?

I was fortunate to have a variety of exciting options to choose from for my next position – from faculty appointments at an economics department, at a children’s hospital, a great research job with economists and sociologists in government, and the postdoc I ultimately chose which offered an environment of colleagues in each of these fields. I attribute my success in receiving offers from groups across very different research environments to my ability to engage my audience – whomever they are – in a story of the importance of my research agenda and communicate what I did and learned in non-technical terms. I thank my dissertation chair, Darius Lakdawalla, Quintiles Chair in Pharmaceutical Development and Regulatory Innovation at USC, not only for all of his constructive critiques and suggestions for my research but also for many times saying during our meetings: Tell me again but as if you were talking to your parents. (Thanks, mom and dad, for patiently listening to my research updates along the way!)

Can you give us a preview of what you will be saying in your Commencement address? What is your message to the graduating Class of 2019?

Throughout career successes and setbacks, let us always remember and value our great power to contribute by helping the people around us – beyond the particular ways we have been trained to support patient health.

Any other advice to those who will follow in your footsteps?  

Pursue research that you believe will be impactful even if it might be risky, and have in your corner colleagues motivated toward similar goals. If your research dies as another line on your CV, was it worth the sacrifices you made to complete that work?