Researchers all across the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus are working toward advancing knowledge and creating solutions to critical health disparities on both local and global scales. These researchers evaluate health disparities from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives, and work to find ways to address the discrepancies within medicine, child development, law, food access, education, and health communication. Each Researcher Spotlight features a health disparities researcher doing important work right here at Illinois.
Kate Wegmann, PhD
Assistant Professor, School of Social Work
Kate Wegmann, PhD, is an assistant professor in the School of Social Work. She conducts school-based social work research focused on social and environmental barriers to academic achievement and children’s general well-being. She is particularly interested in the role that stereotyping plays in the “achievement gaps” between different groups of students and how this knowledge can be leveraged for both prevention and intervention.
What is your research in health disparities about?
My research looks at how racial/ethnic discrimination (such as perceived discrimination and stereotyping) affects the mental and physical health of children and youth. I focus specifically on strategies or interventions that can be implemented in school settings, which is the largest site through which children receive mental health services, and becoming increasingly common as a site for physical health care as well. Right now, I’m especially interested in how discrimination and its correlates contribute to things like sleep disparities, which further affect health and well-being.
How are you conducting your research?
I do both primary data collection (going out and gathering data myself) and secondary data analysis (analyzing existing data). Right now, I’m working on a study that evaluates the relative impact of several key social determinants to the mental health and well-being of Black/African American and Latinx youth. I’m also currently analyzing data from a writing intervention to reduce the effects of stereotyping/narrow academic achievement disparities between Latinx and White middle schoolers, and two colleagues and I are preparing to combine our expertise to conduct a comprehensive social/emotional, mental health, and social relationships screening in a local middle school.
How does being a part of the Illinois community support and enhance your research?
I love that just about any resource or expertise I need for a project is right here on campus! There is so much knowledge and a wealth of resources available. I think the best thing, though, is the friendliness and sense of cooperation across campus. I love that I have colleagues in my department with whom I can collaborate, and also that building connections across departments is encouraged and welcomed.
How will your research or work improve society or reach people?
Ideally, I would like to collaborate with school staff to use the findings of my research to design feasible yet powerful interventions that can improve the health, well-being, and achievement of children and youth—and especially narrow racial/ethnic health and achievement disparities. Schools face so many barriers in terms of time and resources, so I think it’s really important to make sure any interventions that come from my research are informed by school staff and seen as realistic to implement.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
My bachelor's degree was in elementary education, and although I never ended up having my own classroom, I stayed passionate about learning and the potential of the school setting. When I started my Master’s of Social Work program at the University of North Carolina, I was lucky enough to work as a research assistant for a faculty member who was very focused on using social work intervention to narrow racial/ethnic achievement disparities. As I worked on her projects, I realized I could combine my passions for education, social justice, and research! I also had another graduate school mentor who focused on school-based mental health, which further spurred my curiosity about all the ways schools can foster healthy development. Essentially, I was very fortunate to have excellent mentors who modeled ways in which I could combine my passions, and who encouraged me to go out on my own, be independent, and experiment.