Researchers in the Social Network Methods Section conduct innovative research that aims to understand the social, psychological and behavioral environment of families and communities at risk for hereditary disease. They are particularly interested in exploring the intersection between genomic risk information and social relationships and resultant impact on health outcomes. There are three primary arms of this research.
The first arm is an examination of the influence of social relationships on the communication of genetic/genomic risk information within families. The research team considers relational influences on individual health behaviors, such as encouragement to elect genetic/genomic screening. In an initiative called Families SHARE, the researchers focus on developing tools to help families understand that their family health history is associated with shared risk of disease. These tools also provide a platform for family members to gather and archive family health history information, engage in conversations about shared risk, and develop cooperative approaches for risk-reduction.
The second research arm is aimed at understanding interrelated aspects of genetics/genomics, biology, and social relationships. In one line of research, the researchers consider strain in social relationships and examine whether social connections improve resilience of families with high levels of caregiver burden. Their research considers the burden of caring across the life course in different disease contexts. That is, stressors associated with caring for chronically ill children, where parents often take on primary caregiving roles, as well as those arising in caring for chronically ill adults, where caregiving roles are often distributed among adult children and spouses.
The third research arm entails developing and validating innovative methods for network data collection and analysis. In all of their projects, the researchers characterize the social environment within which individuals are embedded, whether in the family or community context. They develop and use innovative methods to capture this environment. Their primary methodological focus is to improve measurement of relational systems and to accommodate the incomplete social network data common to the study of family systems.
Laura M. Koehly, Ph.D., is chief and senior investigator in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), National Institutes of Health. She earned her Ph.D. in quantitative psychology from the University of Illinois - Urbana/Champaign. Following graduate school, Dr. Koehly was a research associate at the University of Texas, M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and on the faculty at the University of Iowa and Texas A&M University. Dr. Koehly joined the NHGRI faculty in 2005.
Dr. Koehly's research focuses on developing and applying social network methods to the study of complex social systems, such as families and communities. Her expertise is on family network systems and the role of family social ties in individual members' engagement in health behaviors. Dr. Koehly is particularly interested in how genetic/genomic risk information can be used to activate network processes to improve families' health. Understanding the familial culture from a network perspective is important for the delivery of healthcare services and dissemination of genetic risk information.
Ultimately, her research aims to develop effective strategies to help families cope with disease-risk information, to increase patients' willingness to share such information with their personal physician and other health care personnel, and to motivate encouragement within the family to increase adherence to risk-reducing behaviors.
A new line of research aims to understand factors associated with resilience to chronic stress in families engaged in high caregiver burden due to chronic illness. This work considers caregiving from a network perspective, capturing the varying roles of formal care providers, such as healthcare providers (e.g., genetic counselors, general practitioners) or caregiving staff, family members, as well as those who are like family (e.g. friends) in the process of direct care provision, decision making, communication, and support in families affected by hereditary disease.
Last Updated: March 1, 2019