Utilizing a multidisciplinary approach, Dr. Stephanie H. Cook integrates the study of attachment theory, minority stress and health risk behaviors among young sexual minority men of color.
As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Cook applied for a spot in Dr. Marc A. Zimmerman’s study of South African youth in the Minority Health Research Training Program. Zimmerman says even as a college sophomore, Cook was clear about her goals.
“She knew she wanted to develop research skills and was able to sense a future of what she was going to do,” says Zimmerman. “She was able to describe and connect ideas.”
Cook has a less glowing view of her own abilities in that meeting with Zimmerman, but she is eternally grateful that he saw something in her.
“A lot of young, poor Black women from an urban area don’t get an opportunity,” says Cook. “His mentorship has been fundamental to my success over the years.”
Originally on a pre-med track as an undergraduate, Cook gradually came to see that her talent and focus were best served elsewhere. Zimmerman’s program took her to South Africa, where she witnessed the impact of AIDS on Black and Brown individuals. When she returned to Michigan, she continued to work on research related to HIV/AIDS.
“I realized that my passion was to address the public health needs of people here and abroad to reduce HIV incidents and to promote health and wellbeing, including mental health,” says Cook, who earned a doctorate in public health with a focus on sociomedical sciences from Columbia University.
HIV/AIDS rates were surging among young Black men when Cook was in graduate school. During her research, she uncovered structural racism, discrimination and minority stress. She returned to Michigan as a postdoctoral researcher before starting her current position at New York University (NYU) in 2017.
In developing her research path, Cook says, “I am all about breaking boundaries and innovation.”
Through reflection, she came to realize the close relationships one has in life — peers, romantic partners, parents and family — matter more than public health gives credit. These relationships help people persevere in life and a lack of them can break someone.
“All of my research focuses on attachment or features of close relationships and how these close relationships can either benefit us or be detrimental to our health,” Cook says. “What we do know about Black and Brown people of color, including sexual minority people of color, is that there’s more institutional racism and discrimination and there are more daily stresses associated with jobs, relationships and childcare. We need to think more critically, working within the institutions on what will mitigate the negative effects of these social stresses on health.”
Within a public health framework, Cook examines the key features of relationships and identifies ways to scale up positive interventions that foster health and wellbeing and reduce disease.
“I feel my work is at the intersection of health psychology, public health and relationship science,” says Cook. “I try to be very specific about the ways in which focusing on relationships can be good for our health.”
Her integrated theory of adult attachment and minority stress comes from research in which Cook sought to understand the HIV prevention needs of minority youth transitioning into adulthood.
“We have social support-based, group-based interventions that are supposed to increase social networks of love and trust … and we think if we target these social networks, we will decrease HIV risk behavior, for example,” says Cook.
Cook is the principal investigator and director of the Attachment and Health Disparities Research Lab at NYU. She utilizes her theoretical framework of attachment and minority stress to inform effective prevention programs for vulnerable sexual minority people of color transitioning to adulthood.
She does extensive mentorship with undergraduates as well as high school students, and undergraduates make up about half of people working in her research lab. Cook teaches social behavioral classes and statistics to graduate students, whom she also is passionate about mentoring.
“She brings the idea of being supportive of equity issues and social justice to everything she thinks about,” says Zimmerman. “She’s committed to the pipeline.”
Dr. Stephanie H. Cook
Title: Assistant Professor of Social Behavioral Sciences and Biostatistics, School of Global Public Health, New York University
Education: B.A., double major in psychology and women’s studies, University of Michigan; M.S. and Ph.D., public health, sociomedical sciences, Columbia University
Career Mentors: Dr. Marc A. Zimmerman, University of Michigan
Words of wisdom/advice to new faculty members: “Make sure to take the time to celebrate your accomplishments. Put your family first, love and live.”
This article originally appeared in the January 21, 2021 edition of Diverse and is one in a series of profiles about this year’s 2021 Emerging Scholars. Read about all of them here.