Biobehavioral Health Alumni Profile: Tirzah R. Spencer, Ph.D.


B.A, 1993 Neuroscience and African American Studies, Oberlin College

M.P.H., 1996, Social & Behavioral Sciences and Epidemiology, Boston University, School of Public Health

Ph.D., 2003 Biobehavioral Health, The Pennsylvania State University

On the Ph.D. program, in her words:

A degree in Biobehavioral Health offered me an interdisciplinary approach to the study of obesity among youth. Specifically, training in BB H provided a strong foundation that included cultural, physiological, international, and human development perspectives. Because of the unique training I received, I have been able to address issues related to obesity from a contextual perspective, focusing on culture, gender, and the ways by which youth make meaning of these experiences within the family and neighborhood environments.

Current areas of professional interest are:

  • Relationship between family context and health behaviors among children and adolescents
  • The intersection of culture, ethnicity, and gender in health outcomes
  • Design and implementation of community- and school-based intervention programs
  • Chronic disease and risk reduction in under-served populations
  • Women’s health (i.e., body esteem)

Current Position

Postdoctoral Scholar
Carolina Population Center
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC

Doctoral Thesis

The Influences of Body Esteem, Feedback from Significant Others, and Eating Practices on Obesity in a Sample of African American Females and Latinas Ages 9 – 15.

Brief description: This study examined the role of eating practices in the relationship between perceived feedback from parents and friends and body esteem among Black girls and Latinas. Results suggested girls’ body esteem was associated with supports and challenges provided by significant others, particularly among older girls. Positive body esteem was associated with supports from parents and friends such as encouragement of physical activity, and challenges from parents and friends in the form of negative feedback to lose weight. Eating practices related to weight gain were positively associated with body esteem among girls in this population. This finding suggests that there might be both positive (body esteem) and negative (overweight status) consequences to health behaviors specifically associated with eating practices that lead to obesity among girls. The mechanism for this is not clear, but further attention should be given to behaviors that support family connectedness and body esteem, but may have detrimental long term effects on girls’ health.

Ph.D. advisor

Dr. Collins O. Airhihenbuwa

Dr. Elizabeth J. Susman