Social and Behavioral Research Branch

Susan J. Persky, Ph.D.

Susan J. Persky
Associate Investigator
Social and Behavioral Research Branch

Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit

B.A. Northwestern University, 2000
M.A. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2002
Ph.D. University of California, Santa Barbara, 2004

phone (301) 443-0098
fax (301) 480-3108
Building 31, Room B1B36
31 CENTER DR, MSC 2073
BETHESDA, MD 20892-2073

Selected Publications

Dr. Persky is a social psychologist whose work examines the use of new genomic knowledge in interactions between health care providers and patients, as well as in the discourse that occurs in other social contexts. Her program of research assesses how disseminating information about genomic discoveries related to common conditions like obesity impact the beliefs and health behavior of individuals, as well as the quality of the healthcare they receive. Dr. Persky is particularly interested in how new genomic information might influence social stigma, health disparities and other forms of unequal treatment. She uses a number of novel research methods including immersive virtual reality technology and quantitative content analysis of social media sources (e.g., online forums and blogs), with the aim of increasing the applicability of her research findings to real-world processes and behavior. Dr. Persky also leads the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area facility at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center.

Dr. Persky's research focuses on three interrelated areas: 1) developing strategies to maximize benefits and minimize risks associated with incorporating genomic information into health care; 2) using emerging media technologies like immersive virtual reality and social media to study genomics communication and evaluate new platforms for conveying genomics information; and 3) evaluating the impact of genomic knowledge dissemination on bias and discrimination against stigmatized groups.

Some of Dr. Persky's work explores how information about genetic predisposition for body weight and obesity influences attitudes and behavior amongst both health care providers and members of the public. Information about gene discovery related to weight and obesity receives a good deal of attention from the media and in scientific publications; however, little is known about how this information affects those who are exposed to it. To conduct these studies, she "immerses" participants into virtual reality clinical scenarios to study their behavior. Her work in this area has shown that providing information about genetic underpinnings of obesity risk can reduce medical students' negative attitudes and behavior toward obese patients. However, such information can also reduce the rates at which they recommend health behavior consultations as part of these patients' care. This raises concerns that dissemination of genomic knowledge could undercut providers' efforts to engage patients in health-promoting behaviors. Dr. Persky's ongoing work also considers how genomic information will affect patients when it is introduced into health care encounters. She also considers factors that modify patients' reactions to genomic information. For example, a study by Dr. Persky and colleagues found that the apparent race of a physician can influence African-American patients' processing of the genomics-based lung cancer risk feedback s/he provides.

Individuals also increasingly learn about genomic advancements on the internet. Dr Persky's work has shown that individuals apply the genetic information they encounter online to their own health beliefs and decisions. Encountering genomics information online can alter the understanding that individuals bring to the clinic as patients. Therefore, she and her colleagues have begun to study opportunities for effectively communicating genomics information to the public through social media.

As the leadership of the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area, Dr. Persky provides scientific oversight for all projects conducted within the facility. She serves as a technical expert and liaison, and also as a social-psychology-based content expert and collaborator. In this role, she has collaborated on several projects. These include one project assessing virtual reality-based metaphors for use in genetics education. Another project used a virtual reality-based buffet restaurant to assess the effect of family history-based risk information on mothers' food choices for their young children.

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Last Reviewed: August 26, 2013