Meet Kelli Komro, PhD MPH

An interview with Q1 2020’s featured Spark affiliated faculty

Kelli Komro, PhDHometown:
I was born and grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Undergraduate College & Major/ Minor:
As I was entering college, I was very interested in becoming a social worker. My interest in being a social worker stemmed from wanting to help teens that where having a difficult time, such as dropping out of school, getting into drugs and not pursuing higher education. I was particularly struck with economic and racial disparities that were so clear to me in Milwaukee at that time. My father discouraged me from going into social work because he was concerned about my future financial security. Therefore, I first majored in journalism, but soon changed to a major in psychology with a minor in health sciences. I was really interested in the mind-body connection and how stress causes ill health. All of these interests eventually led me to the field of public health and I pursued an MPH and PhD in epidemiology with a focus on primary prevention, youth health promotion and community randomized trials.

What are your hobbies or activities when you are not working?
I love to read and discuss what I am reading with my husband. I enjoy both nonfiction and fiction. My husband does not read fiction, even though I try to explain the lessons of understanding, empathy and emotional intelligence that come from reading fiction. I’m not sure he buys it! I love to walk in nature – my favorite is walking on the beach! Being in nature is centering. Walking on the beach makes me happy. I love to plan and hold dinner parties for family and friends – no time to worry about research challenges when my brain is focused on food prep details! And I feel a wonderful sense of satisfaction when I can make people happy with my food.

How long have you been in Atlanta? What do you like most about Atlanta?
I moved to Atlanta in October 2015 for my dream job as a professor in the Rollins School of Public Health! What I most like about Atlanta is that it is home to Rollins, the CDC, and a group of fantastic friends and colleagues.

Why are you passionate about the research you do?
I am passionate about the research that I do because I believe it makes a difference in people’s lives. I want every child to live in conditions that are conducive to achieving their full potential and living a healthful and happy life. Science helps us identify conditions that pose risk and conditions that provide support and protection. Science helps us figure out how to improve conditions supportive of health and wellbeing – what works and what does not. Science can also help us improve our communication strategies to support science-based policy making!

Can you tell me about one of your current projects?
I am excited to be leading a newly funded community randomized trial that was funded as part of the NIH HEAL initiative to prevent opioid use disorder in older adolescents and young adults. I, and my Emory-based co-Investigators Hannah Cooper, Melvin Livingston and Alex Wagenaar, are partnering with colleagues at Cherokee Nation Behavioral Health in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Terrence Kominsky and Juli Skinner.

The national public health opioid crisis has disproportionately burdened rural white populations, and disproportionately burdened American Indian populations. Therefore, we have designed an opioid prevention trial to be conducted in at-risk rural communities in the CN (in northeast Oklahoma) with white and American Indian adolescents and young adults. Our goal is to implement and evaluate a theory-based, integrated multi-level community intervention designed to prevent the onset and escalation of opioid and other drug misuse. Two distinct intervention approaches—community organizing as implemented in our established CMCA intervention protocol, and universal school-based brief intervention and referral as implemented in our established CONNECT intervention protocol—will be expanded and integrated to further enhance their effects in preventing and reducing opioid misuse. The CMCA and CONNECT interventions were originally designed to target adolescent alcohol use, but nevertheless showed significant beneficial effects on use of other drugs, including prescription drug misuse. The proposed study will: (1) further improve the design of the interventions with increased focus on opioids, (2) test the expanded, integrated versions in a community randomized trial, and (3) design and test new systems for sustained implementation within existing structures of the Cherokee Nation. Building upon the extant prevention science evidence, our study will respond to a gap in evidence concerning opioid misuse prevention among at-risk adolescents transitioning to young adulthood among American Indian and other rural youth. Our previous trial, conducted in partnership with the Cherokee Nation ended with youth attaining age 18; the proposed new trial will additionally advance the science regarding strategies to engage young adults as they transition beyond high school. During the UG3 planning phase we will (1) expand and integrate a theory-based multi-level preventive intervention package for the critical developmental period of late adolescence to young adulthood, (2) develop implementation, proximal and opioid and other drug use outcome measures, and (3) prepare for the initiation of the trial. During the UH3 trial phase we will (1) implement interventions through Cherokee Nation and measure implementation processes and fidelity, (2) measure proximal and opioid and other drug use outcomes every six months among a cohort of 10th grade students from 16 schools followed over three years through their transition out of high school, (3) test via a community randomized trial the effect of the integrated CMCA-CONNECT intervention, and (4) analyze implementation costs and cost-effectiveness. This trial will expand upon our previous research to substantially advance the scientific evidence regarding prevention of opioid and other drug misuse during the critical developmental period of late adolescent transitions to young adulthood.