June 1, 2011

Georita Frierson was 19 years old when her father, an African-American, was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and subsequently died of an infection. That experience shaped Frierson’s interest in health psychology, especially in improving the health behavior of underserved groups such as African-Americans, Hispanics and non-English-speaking minorities.

Assistant Professor Georita Frierson

“There is a silver lining in every experience that can grow your passion,” says Frierson, assistant professor of psychology in Dedman College. “I’ve been very passionate about helping people increase their healthy behaviors and decrease their unhealthy behaviors.” Frierson earned her Master’s and doctoral degrees in clinical psychology from The Ohio State University.

Frierson now is engaged in research partnerships with some of the nation’s most respected medical institutions and health care providers, including The Cooper Institute and the Simmons Cancer Center at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. Her research focuses on helping individuals with chronic conditions to improve quality of life, to address their physical and emotional health and to participate in healthy living programs, including breast cancer prevention and education. She has embedded herself in the community through work at clinics, churches and health fairs.

One program, Project GATHER, explores the motivating factors and barriers to racial and ethnic minorities’ willingness to participate in genetic biobanking, in which individuals donate blood to a health institution for genetic research. Led by Frierson, a team of SMU graduate and undergraduate researchers in collaboration with UT Southwestern and The Cooper Institute recruited Dallas-area residents into 28 focus groups to assess willingness to donate blood for genetic research on cardiovascular disease and cancer. Preliminary findings revealed that 81 percent of participants had never heard of biobanking. Before the focus group, 64 percent said they would participate in a biobank; after the focus group, that number increased to 90 percent.

With a $50,000 grant from The Discovery Foundation in Dallas, Frierson also is undertaking a two-year study to understand the effect of fitness, exercise and psychosocial factors in women diagnosed with aggressive, non-hormonal Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Triple Negative, which occurs in 10 percent to 20 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer, doesn’t respond to all traditional treatments. It generally affects women who are younger, test positive for a mutation in the human gene that suppresses tumors, are African-American or Hispanic-Latina.

Called Project Positives About Triple Negatives, or PAT, the study will provide data to enable doctors, hospitals and other providers to develop programs and care strategies for Triple Negative patients.

“We want to fill a gap that needs to be addressed,” Frierson says. “The information from this pilot can help us develop programs and support groups to ease the burden on Triple Negative survivors. These are young cancer survivors; understanding their needs is important.”

As much as Frierson is devoted to behavioral health, she is equally dedicated to mentoring students. She directs graduate and undergraduate students in her ARCH 1 (Addressing Race, Ethnicity, Culture and Health for 1) Lab in Heroy Hall, which looks at the causes and risk factors of various health behaviors. In the four years Frierson has been at SMU, nearly 40 students have worked in the lab.

Sophomore Olivia Adolphson has worked more than 135 hours in Frierson’s lab. “This experience showed me what psychologists do in real life instead of just reading about it,” says Adolphson, who wants to be a clinical psychologist. “Now I’m conducting my own study about people’s perceptions of genetic biobanking.”

Margaret Allen

Read more about Frierson’s research.