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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


Dr. Susan Persky is an associate investigator and head of the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Unit where she directs the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area (IVETA) within in the Social and Behavioral Research Branch (SBRB), National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), NIH. She earned a B.A. in psychology for Northwestern University. She earned an M.A. and Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara where she studied at the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior. After conducting postdoctoral research at Columbia University, she came to the SBRB in 2005. Here, she built the IVETA, an immersive VR -based experimental research lab within the SBRB, founded in 2006.

Dr. Persky splits her effort between providing leadership for the IVETA and conducting her programmatic research. Her work investigates the function of new genomic knowledge about common health conditions like obesity and diabetes in interactions between health care providers and patients and in public and online discourse. Dr. Persky has published extensively in the areas of health communication, genomics, and virtual reality methods, and has presented her work in venues such as the Smithsonian Institution and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. She is a member of the World Economic Forum Global Future Council on Virtual and Augmented Reality.

Scientific Summary

Throughout her career, Susan Persky has examined the integration of technological advancements into society. She trained as a social psychologist at the Research Center for Virtual Environments and Behavior at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There, she honed her expertise in examining virtual reality (VR) as an object of inquiry and as a research tool. Her early work demonstrated the unique capabilities of VR for heightening realism. This work underscores the potential of such tools for the study of human behavior.

In 2005, Dr. Persky was recruited to the Social and Behavioral Branch to apply her methodological expertise in understanding social and behavioral processes around the translation of emerging genomic technologies for health benefit. Since then, she has split her effort between building a research program and providing leadership of the Immersive Virtual Environment Testing Area (IVETA) research facility in the NIH Clinical Center.

Virtual reality scene


As the head of the IVETA, Dr. Persky provides scientific oversight for projects conducted within the facility. She serves as a methodological expert and liaison, and also as a social-psychology and health communication-based content expert and collaborator. In this role, she has collaborated on several projects that advance the scientific understanding of genes and society. She also leads efforts to refine and extend the methodological and measurement approaches supported by the testing area. She has conducted research on immersive VR techniques and affordances in health and medicine, and has also authored conceptual and review papers to push these areas forward. For example, she and her colleagues have validated the VR Buffet, a tool for fine-grained assessment of food choice behavior, and have evaluated VR as a potential platform for future communication of genomics information.

Dr. Persky's substantive research program also sits at the edge of emerging technologies. Her work is based on the notion that it is essential to prepare for and optimally shape the diffusion of genomic information into clinical and public contexts. However, rather than exacerbate disparities, genomic advancements should be shaped to benefit underserved and stigmatized populations. To this end, Dr. Persky focuses on three interrelated areas: 1) developing strategies to maximize benefits and minimize risks associated with incorporating genomic information in health care encounters; 2) using emerging media technologies like VR 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 stigmatization, bias, and related processes.

Dr. Persky's investigations of the clinical encounter often employ immersive VR clinical simulations. Use of a VR-based clinic allows for randomized, experimental approaches to be employed even while the research setting retains elements of a realistic clinical encounter. This approach also affords crucial nonverbal behavior measurement opportunities. Conceptually, her work assumes that one must understand influences of genomic technologies on both patients and providers. Thus, one thread focuses on the perspective of healthcare providers and one focuses on the patient's perspective. Dr. Persky's work has shown that providing information about genomic underpinnings of obesity risk can significantly reduce the extent to which medical students stereotype and avoid eye contact with obese patients. However findings from this work also raise concerns that dissemination of genomic knowledge could undercut providers' efforts to engage patients in health-promoting behaviors. From the perspective of the patient, her research has shown that patients are interested in engaging in genomics-informed weight management care. Her work has also demonstrated that provider-initiated communication of obesity-related genomic information can be variable with respect to its influence on the attitudes and beliefs that underlie patient health behavior. At the same time, however, discussing this information can reduce patients' perceptions that providers stigmatize them based on weight, and thereby benefit patient-provider relationships. Dr. Persky's research has examined the influence of several potential moderators and mechanisms related to genomic information receptivity among patients such as: provider communication approaches, patient emotional state, and social distance between patients and providers. These factors are of particular importance when communicating about conditions that are stigmatized or disproportionally affect underserved populations.

Individuals also increasingly learn about and discuss genomic advancements and associated health-relevant information outside of the clinical context in physical and digital communities. Dr. Persky's research has shown that individuals apply the genetic information they encounter through online social media to their own health beliefs and decisions. Furthermore, this line of work elucidates the influence of the broader genomics-related media and cultural environment on individuals' beliefs about weight, eating behavior, obesity, and diabetes. These processes can have important implications for psychological and physical well-being. Dr. Persky's work underscores potential difficulties in communicating complex concepts related to processes like gene-environment interaction, genomic influence on health-relevant behavior, and epigenetics processes. At times, these messages can backfire, causing individuals to engage in defensive processing, or weaken perceptions of efficacy and control. At other times, these messages can effect change, although through routes that present challenges. For example, one project demonstrated that family history-based obesity risk concepts related to young children's risk of obesity caused maternal guilt for child health behavior and for passing down a genetic predisposition for overweight. However, this work showed that guilt can be reduced through enacting healthy child feeding behaviors. This line of work aims to provide a route to increased health-promoting behavior alongside ultimately positive affective experiences.

Encounters with genomics information online and in daily life can also alter the understanding (or misunderstanding) that individuals bring to the clinic as patients. With this in mind, Dr. Persky has begun to study the intersection between the public, social information environment and the clinical environment. Indeed, there is a need to understand routes of entry for genomic information into the clinic. Furthermore, there may be opportunity for successful communication strategies identified in the clinical context to be scaled up to help shape the public discourse around genomics and health through emerging experiential media, social media and other public health-relevant channels.


Persky S, Agurs-Collins T, Paskett E, Barkin S, Meissner H, Artega S, Nansel T, Zhang, X, Das R, Farhat T. Designing and Assessing Multilevel Interventions to Improve Minority Health and Reduce Health Disparities. American Journal of Public Health, 109:S86-S93. 2019. [PubMed]

Persky S, Kistler WD, Klein WMP, Ferrer RA. Internet versus virtual reality settings for genomics information provision. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 22, 7-14. 2019. [PubMed]

Persky S, Goldring MR, Turner SA, Cohen RW, Kistler WD. Validity of assessing child feeding with virtual reality. Appetite, 123, 201-207. 2018. [PubMed]

Persky S, Goldring MR, Cohen RW. Genomics-informed weight management in primary care: anticipated public interest. Personalized Medicine, 15, 271-278. 2018. [PubMed]

Bouhlal S, McBride CM, Trivedi NS, Agurs-Collins T, Persky S. Identifying eating behavior phenotypes and their correlates: A novel direction toward improving weight management interventions. Appetite, 111, 142-150. 2017. [PubMed]

Persky S, Bouhlal S, Goldring M, McBride CM. Beliefs about genetic influences on eating behaviors: Characteristics and associations with weight management confidence. Eating Behaviors, 26, 93-98. 2017. [PubMed]

Persky S, Ferrer RA, Klein WMP. Nonverbal and paraverbal behavior in (simulated) medical visits related to genomics and weight: A role for emotion and race. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 39, 804-814. 2016. [PubMed]

Persky S, Ferrer RA, Klein WMP. Genomic information may inhibit weight-related behavior change inclinations among individuals in a fear state. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 50, 452-459. 2016. [PubMed]

Beekman JA, Ferrer RA, Klein WMP, Persky S. Effects of perceived weight discrimination on willingness to adopt unhealthy behaviors: Influence of genomic information. Psychology & Health, 31, 334-348. 2016. [PubMed]

Persky, S., McBride CM, Faith MS, Wagner LK, Ward DS. Mothers' guilt responses to children's family history-based obesity risk feedback. Journal of Health Psychology, 20, 649-658. 2015. [PubMed]

Persky, S., Street, RL. Evaluating Approaches for Communicating about Genomic Influences on Body Weight. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 49, 675-684. 2015. [PubMed]

Bouhlal, S., McBride, CM, Ward, DS, Persky, S. Drivers of overweight mothers' food choice behaviors depend on child gender. Appetite, 84, 154-160. 2015. [PubMed]

Persky S, de Heer HD, McBride CM, Reid RJ. The role of weight, race, and health care experiences in care use among young men and women. Obesity, 22:1194-1200. 2014. [PubMed]

McBride CM, Persky S, Wagner LK, Faith MS, Ward DS. Effects of a providing personalized feedback of child's obesity risk on mothers' food choices using a virtual reality buffet. International Journal of Obesity, 37:1307-1313. 2013. [PubMed]

Persky S, Kaphingst KA, Allen Jr VC, Senay I. Effects of patient-provider race concordance and smoking status on lung cancer risk perception accuracy among African Americans. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 45:308-317. 2013. [PubMed]

Persky S, Sanderson SC, Koehly LM. Online discussions about genetics and body weight: Implications for health behavior and internet-based education. Journal of Health Communication, 18,:241-249. 2013. [PubMed]

Wagner LK, Paquin R, Persky S. Genetics blogs as a public health tool: Assessing credibility and influence. Public Health Genomics. 15: 218-25. 2012. [PubMed]

Persky, S and Eccleston, CP. Impact of genetic causal information on medical students' clinical encounters with an obese virtual patient: Health promotion and social stigma. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 41, 363-372. 2011. [PubMed]

Persky, S and Eccleston, CP. Medical student bias and care recommendations for an obese versus non-obese virtual patient.International Journal of Obesity, 35, 728-735. 2011. [PubMed]

Persky S. Employing immersive virtual environments for innovative experiments in health care communication. Patient Education and Counseling, 82:313-317. 2011. [PubMed]

Persky S. Application of virtual reality methods to obesity prevention and management research. Journal of Diabetes Science and Technology, 5:333-339. 2011. [PubMed]

Sanderson SC, Persky S, Michie S. Psychological and behavioral responses to genetic test results indicating increased risk of obesity: does the causal pathway from gene to obesity matter? Public Health Genomics. 2009. [PubMed]

Persky S, McBride CM. Immersive virtual environment technology: A promising tool for future social and behavioral genomics research and practice. Health Communication, 24(8):677-82. 2009. [PubMed]

Persky S., Kaphingst K.A., McCall C., Lachance C., Beall A.C., Blascovich J. Presence relates to distinct outcomes in two virtual environments employing different learning modalities. Cyberpsychol Behav, 12:263-268. 2009. [PubMed]

Kaphingst KA, Persky S, McCall C, Lachance C, Loewenstein J, Beall AC, Blascovich J. Testing the effects of educational strategies on comprehension of a genomic concept using virtual reality technology. Patient Education and Counseling, 77(2), 224-230. 2009. [PubMed]

Kaphingst KA, Persky S, McCall C, Lachance C, Beall A, Blascovich J. Testing communication strategies to convey genomic concepts using virtual reality technology. J Health Commun, 14:384-399. 2009. [PubMed]

McCall C, Blascovich J, Young A, Persky S. Proxemic behaviors as predictors of aggression towards black (but not white) males in an immersive virtual environment. Social Influence, 4:138-154. 2009.

Persky S, Blascovich J. Immersive virtual video game play and presence: influences on aggressive feelings and behavior. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 17:57-72. 2008.

Persky S, Kaphingst KA, Condit CM, McBride CM. Assessing hypothetical scenario methodology in genetic susceptibility testing analog studies: a quantitative review. Genet Med, 9:272-738. 2007. [PubMed]

Persky S, Blascovich J. Immersive virtual environments versus traditional platforms: effects of violent and nonviolent video game play. Media Psychology, 10:135-156. 2007.

Bailenson JN, Swinth KR, Hoyt CL, Persky S, Dimov AE, Blascovich J. The independent and interactive effects of embodied agent appearance and behavior on self report, cognitive, and behavioral markers or copresence in immersive virtual environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, 14:379-393. 2005.

Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit Staff

Christopher J. Fortney, M.S.
Christopher J. Fortney, M.S.
  • Lab Manager
  • Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit
Brittany M. Hollister, Ph.D.
Brittany M. Hollister, Ph.D.
  • Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit
Haley E. Yaremych
Haley E. Yaremych
  • Postbaccalaureate IRTA
  • Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit
Margaret K. Rose
Margaret K. Rose
  • Postbaccalaureate IRTA
  • Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit

Last updated: April 25, 2019