Abigail Lee

Abigail Lee, PhD student, community and behavioral health

sheds light on reproductive stigma

“Over the past seven years, I have interacted with close to 500 graduate students through teaching and advising, and Abby is easily one of the most organized, determined, and analytically minded students I have had the opportunity to work with. She is going to have a great impact in the field of global sexual and reproductive health in the future.” -William Story, associate professor, community and behavioral health

Hometown: Iowa City, Iowa

Faculty mentor/advisor: William Story, PhD, MPH, associate professor, community and behavioral health, College of Public Heath

What is your degree program and expected graduate date? I’m earning a PhD in Community and Behavioral Health with an expected graduation in 2024.

Please describe your research: I investigate the influence of stigma related to sex and reproduction on our health and wellbeing. Specifically, I study how stigma is expressed and experienced, what core beliefs influence systems of stigma and how those beliefs are formed, and how we can accurately measure various attributes of stigma. Ultimately, I aim to illuminate the impact that sexual behavior stigmas have on our mental health and quality of life throughout our lives.

In simple terms, why does this research matter? This research is important because stigmatizing attitudes (and the discrimination that accompanies them) can be violent, oppressive, and are often dictated by people and institutions that hold the most power in society. Alternatively, people who are marginalized and oppressed in society likely have personal identities and lived experiences that are stigmatized and are unjustly burdened with health challenges. Furthermore, sexuality and reproduction are often incredibly salient aspects of our social lives and wellness, yet across many cultural spaces sex is not an acceptable aspect of mainstream discussion. Therefore, stigma related to sex and sexuality can be an enormous barrier to feeling safe and healthy.

How soon after starting at the University of Iowa were you able to participate in research? I started participating in research immediately when I joined the University of Iowa community as a Master of Public Health (MPH) student in 2018. During my MPH (2018-2020), I was a graduate research assistant on a variety of public health research projects in the Department of Community and Behavioral Health. In 2019, I connected with my advisor, Dr. William Story, and my co-mentor, Dr. Nema Aluku (Nairobi, Kenya), and together we explored the lived experiences of young pregnant women in western Kenya. This collaboration produced the research teams I work with now (2020-present) and motivates all my PhD work.

How has being involved in research made you more successful at the University of Iowa? My involvement in research at the University of Iowa introduced me to a group of global mentors who care deeply for me, and all their students’ holistic experiences. These mentors demonstrate how they value community and partners, they teach rigorous (but realistic) research approaches informed by their own challenges and successes, they authentically believe in co-learning and life-long growth across their scholarship, and they regularly connect me to resources that are tailored to my needs and interests. Research has, therefore, enhanced my development through exposure to quality mentorship, which has confronted and expanded my own personal values and beliefs.

What are your career goals and/or plans after graduation? After I graduate, I would like to secure a post-doctoral fellowship where I can continue building my professional identity, my network of trusted partners, and strengthen my research skills. I also experience a lot of joy when I teach and interact with students; I would like to explore careers where I can cultivate safe and encouraging environments for students to learn about community and behavioral health. Finally, I feel very connected to the research teams that I participate in now and I would love to remain a part of these teams in the future.

Banner location: not on display—