Students

Larisa Albers

Larisa Albers


Larisa Albers is a second-year PhD student in the Health Behavior Research program. She graduated with her Master of Public Health (MPH) degree with an emphasis in Applied Epidemiology in August 2020. Larisa's research interests are centered in adolescent health promotion, adverse childhood experiences, and minority/immigrant health disparities. Through this line of research, she intends to fill the gaps in the literature regarding adolescent trauma in exploring the cultural, ethnic, and socioeconomic risk factors that act as mechanisms in the causal chain between adolescent stressors and health outcomes such as substance use, chronic health disorders, and poor mental health.

Cynthia  Begay

Cynthia Begay


Cynthia Begay, MPH (Navajo/Hopi/Chicana) is a first year PhD HBR student. Under the guidance of her mentor Claradina Soto, PhD, MPH (Navajo/Pueblo), Cynthia's focus is on community-based participatory projects surrounding tobacco cessation and opioid drug abuse among American Indian/Alaskan Native communities throughout California.

Maria Bolshakova

Maria Bolshakova

PhD Student

Marias is a third-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. She graduated from the University of Florida in May 2016 with a B.S in psychology and B.A in anthropology. After graduating, Maria worked as a research assistant at the UF Department of Psychiatry. Working under her mentor Dr. Steve Sussman, and collaborating with faculty and staff at LA County Department of Health Services (DHS), Maria is currently focusing on addictions and health services research. She has conducted research on opioid, tobacco, and marijuana use. Recently, she has taken an interest in utilizing medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. Her research goals include: identifying barriers and improving access to substance abuse treatment, delivering efficient, evidence-based care, and improving processes in mental health and substance abuse treatment delivery.

Elizabeth Burner

Elizabeth Burner

MD MPH
Assistant Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine

Elizabeth Burner, MD, MPH, is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Emergency Medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. In 2013, Dr. Burner joined the faculty at the Keck School and works clinically in the emergency department at the LAC USC hospital as well as USC Verdugo Hill Hospital. Dr. Burner's research interests center on investigating emergent health communication tools to reach health disparity groups, and directing patients to chronic care and medical homes as appropriate. She is developing a mixed methods research career to better understand the viewpoints of marginalized populations, particularly urban Latino immigrants.

Samantha Cwalina

Samantha Cwalina

Doctoral Student
Teaching Assistant

Sam graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2014 with a B.S. in Psychology, where she conducted tobacco regulatory research on nicotine reduction paradigms in rodent and human subjects. Currently in her fourth year at USC, she has continued her tobacco regulatory research to inform tobacco-related policy decisions that will reduce the number of preventable deaths, diseases, and addictions attributable to tobacco use in the United States. She is funded by the USC Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (TCORS) and recently received a Pilot Project award to collect data on young adult e-cigarette users who use multiple tobacco products and risk for depressive symptoms. Other research interests include menthol cigarettes, socioeconomic health disparities, and emotional health.

Bridgette  Do

Bridgette Do


Bridgette Do is a second-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. She received her B.S. in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention from USC in 2017 and her Master of Public Health from USC in 2018. Bridgette has worked in the Real-Time Eating Activity and Children’s Health (REACH) Lab since 2015 and continues to conduct research under Dr. Genevieve Dunton as a Research Assistant. Her primary research interests are in obesity and cancer risk/prevention and the use of Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) to better understand the psychosocial correlates of physical activity and eating. Additionally, Bridgette is interested in adolescent and young adult (AYA) cancer prevention.

Patricia Escobedo

Patricia Escobedo

TCORS Pre-doctoral Fellow

Patricia is a doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. She earned her B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, worked as a non-profit program director and earned her M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Cal State Northridge. She was awarded a USC Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science for Vulnerable Populations (USC TCORS) pre-doctoral fellowship in 2015, and a Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (TRDRP) pre-doctoral fellowship award in 2018. Her research interests include tobacco regulatory science, health disparities, community-based participatory research, and social determinants of health. Patricia is also passionate about helping students from underrepresented communities pursue higher education and obtain graduate degrees. Science benefits from diversity. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05326-3 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-diversity-makes-us-smarter/

Ellen Galstyan

Ellen Galstyan


Ellen is a first-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research PhD program. She received her B.A. in Sociology from University of California, Riverside in 2016. Her primary research interests include health disparities in underserved populations, tobacco and substance use. Ellen is currently working under the guidance of Dr. Steve Sussman examining electronic cigarette and smokable tobacco use in certain ethnic locations in the Greater Los Angeles area.

Jesse Goldshear

Jesse Goldshear


Jesse Lloyd Goldshear, MPH, is a first-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research Program at the Keck School of Medicine at USC, studying under the mentorship of Ricky Bluthenthal, PhD. He received his Master in Public Health from Drexel University Dornsife School of Public Health, concentrating in Community Health and Prevention, in June 2016. His primary research interests include novel harm reduction programs for people who use drugs, health sequelae of polysubstance use, and risk behaviors related to sexually transmitted infections among people who use drugs. Secondary interests include exploring how risk environment factors influence drug use trajectories among marginalized communities. Currently, Jesse is involved in a community-based study examining injection drug use initiation in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Kellie Imm

Kellie Imm


Kellie is a first year doctoral student in Health Behavior Research in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. She graduated from Webster University with a B.A. in Psychology, and later completed the Applied Behavior Analysis program at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. She spent the past five years working in cancer prevention and control research under the guidance of Dr. Graham Colditz and the Division of Public Health Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine. Building from her prior work in energetics and cancer, she plans to analyze childhood adiposity and weight fluctuations and their role in later life cancer risk and mortality under the mentorship of Dr. Britni Belcher. She is also interested in merging theories of Applied Behavior Analysis with Epidemiology to design physical activity interventions that produce sustainable change.

Afton Kechter

Afton Kechter


Afton received a B.S. in Dietetics and Psychology and M.S. in Counseling. Now as a 4th year PhD student, Afton's research focuses on examining mechanisms of maladaptive behaviors and mechanisms of efficacious treatments in order to translate and disseminate findings into real-world practices that target multiple health risk behaviors for chronic disease prevention.

Anuja Majmundar

Anuja Majmundar

USC Provost Fellow

Anuja Majmundar is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. Anuja is interested in using data science methods to explore questions pertaining to social good, health policy, and health behaviors. Anuja's current work is focused on using social media data to address the e-cigarette epidemic at scale. Her research interests leverage several years of experience in marketing research. Anuja completed her M.B.A. in Communication Management from Symbiosis International University, and M.A. in Communication from San Diego State University. She was recently awarded the TCORS pre-doctoral fellowship and was also a recipient of USC's Provost Fellowship (2016-2017).

Kelsey McAlister

Kelsey McAlister


Kelsey McAlister is a first-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program at the University of Southern California. She graduated with her Bachelor's degree in Physical Education from Gonzaga University, and then went on to earn her Master's degree in Kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton. She worked for two years as a Project Coordinator at Children's Hospital Los Angeles in a neuroimaging lab. Under the guidance of Dr. Britni Belcher, her primary research interests include the interplay between energy balance behaviors such as physical activity and sedentary behavior, as well as obesity-related disease risk and cardiometabolic biomarkers in youth.

Sydney Miller

Sydney Miller


Sydney Miller is a first-year doctoral student in the health behavior research program. She received her B.A. degree in psychology from the University of North Alabama and then went on to work as a research assistant at Florida State University, where she conducted community based participatory research in cardiovascular disease prevention. She is currently working under Dr. Kayla de la Haye as a research assistant on Healthy Habits, a childhood obesity prevention program. Her primary research interests are the environmental and social determinants of weight-related behaviors and the development of interventions to prevent and reduce obesity, especially within low-income or rural communities.

Christine  Naya

Christine Naya


As a third-year doctoral student in health behavior research at University of Southern California, Christine's current projects look at the harmful effects of prenatal stress on gestational weight gain and birth outcomes in low-income Hispanic mothers living in Los Angeles. To understand how stress impacts obesity in underrepresented mothers, her line of research integrates 1) biopsychosocial models of stress, affect, and family systems, 2) health behavior theories about physical activity, and 3) population-level understanding of maternal and child health disparities. This work was inspired by her undergraduate education in psychobiology and developmental psychology at UCLA, Master of Public Health training in Maternal and Child Health at UC Berkeley, and her experience as an intern at the Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health Bureau at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Carol Ochoa

Carol Ochoa


Carol Ochoa is a doctoral candidate in the Health Behavior Research program. This year she was awarded the prestigious National Cancer Institute (NCI) Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Fellow Transtion Award. Her work focuses on cancer survivorship and caregiver health; cancer health disparities; and evaluating interventions that focus on cervical cancer screening and prevention. Carol's current dissertation work focuses on the role of dyadic factors on psychosocial wellbeing and healthcare interactions among childhood cancer survivors, parent's and medical providers. Prior to starting her doctorate training Carol served as the Cancer Survivorship workgroup ORISE Fellow within the Epidemiology and Applied Research Branch in the Division of Cancer Prevention and Control (DCPC) at CDC. She joined DCPC in 2016 after receiving her MPH in Behavioral Science and Health Education from Emory University and received her BA from UCLA in 2013.

Sheila Pakdaman

Sheila Pakdaman


Sheila is a third-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. She received her B.S. in Biopsychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences, and M.S. in Global Medicine from the Keck School of Medicine at University of Southern California. Working under the advisement of Dr. Steven Sussman, PhD and Dr. Jennifer Unger, PhD her research is focused on instinctual and appetitive drives in addiction. More specifically, her interest lies in understanding how Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) may lead to addictive behaviors and drug use later in life -- particularly prescription drug misuse. She has served as a Teaching Assistant in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences. Currently, she is a Research Assistant for the USC Institute for Addiction Science, working with Dr. John Clapp, PhD. She also currently teaches a course entailing substance and behavioral addictions at UCLA Extension.

Sarah Piombo

Sarah Piombo


Sarah is a first year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research program. She received her B.S. from Santa Clara University in 2016 with a double major in Public Health Science and Psychobiology. In 2018 she received her MPH from the University of Southern California with a focus on epidemiology and biostatistics. Her primary research interests include social network analysis, addictions, program implementation and evaluation. Sarah is currently working under the guidance of Dr. Thomas Valente.

Cynthia Ramirez

Cynthia Ramirez

Pre Doctoral Student
Teaching Assistant

Cynthia N. Ramirez, M.P.H. is a doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research Ph.D. program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. Cynthia's primary research interests are in the development, implementation, and assessment of positive-psychology based interventions to facilitate adaptation to major life events (e.g., stress, disease diagnosis) and the role of biopsychosocial influences in the health outcomes of childhood and adolescent/young adult populations. Other interests include cancer survivorship, elimination of health disparities among ethnic minority populations, and occupational wellbeing. Cynthia is a graduate of the University of Southern California's progressive degree program, where she received her B.S. in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention and Master's in Public Health with a concentration in Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Prior to her enrollment in USC's Ph.D. program, Cynthia spent several years working and consulting on the development of corporate wellbeing programs aimed at increasing job satisfaction, quality of life, and work life balance throughout the San Francisco Bay Area.

Christopher Rogers

Christopher Rogers


Chris is a second year PhD student in the Health Behavior Research program. He earned his MPH in Applied Epidemiology from California State University, Northridge. He is currently working with Dr. Jenifer Unger, seeking to inform policy decisions related to tobacco and marijuana use, with current projects assessing the effects of adverse childhood experiences, financial strain, and discrimination. Because of his background as an Emergency Medical Technician, Chris also works with data related to prehospital care policy and emergency preparedness and is working to identify knowledge gaps related to children with special health care needs.

Kelsey Simpson

Kelsey Simpson

MA, PhD Student

Is a first year PhD student in the Health Behavior Research Program at the Keck School of Medicine at USC. She received her Master of Arts with distinction in Clinical Psychology from California State University Northridge in the Spring of 2016. There, she worked as Lab Coordinator of a neuropsychology lab that focused on the neuropsychological, cognitive, and psychosocial consequences of HIV infection. Her primary research interests are grounded in investigating the multidimensional effects of racial discrimination and stigmatization on positive health-outcomes (e.g. medication adherence, sexual risk behaviors, HIV/AIDS) in ethnic and sexual minority groups. Additionally, she's interested in evaluating the efficacy of substance abuse treatment programs in reducing and addressing mental health-related issues and preventing further engagement in risk behaviors. Kelsey is currently working under the supervision of Dr. Ricky Bluthenthal on a community-based health intervention study of injection drug users in Los Angeles county.

Julia Stal

Julia Stal


Julia is a second-year doctoral student in the Health Behavior Research Ph.D. program at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. She graduated from San Diego State University in 2019 with a Bachelor's Degree in Psychology and has worked in a variety of research labs with a focus on chronic illness and health outcomes. Julia is part of the Center for Young Adult Cancer Survivorship Research and the Southern California Evidence Review Center. She is interested in translational research examining quality of life, fertility, palliative care, late effects, and models of care among pediatric, adolescent, and young adult cancer survivors. Julia works under the supervision of Dr. Kimberly Miller and Dr. Joel Milam, and is currently focusing on discussions of iatrogenic infertility between colorectal cancer patients and their providers.

Jessica Tobin

Jessica Tobin

NCI Predoctoral Fellow

Jessi completed a B.A. in Psychology, a MS in Kinesiology, and spent several years working in the healthcare industry prior to starting the PhD program at USC. Jessi is broadly interested in sociodemographic health disparities and the influence of contextual factors on health. Her current research focuses on individual- and neighborhood-level predictors of health outcomes among childhood cancer survivors.

Shirlene Wang

Shirlene Wang


Shirlene is a first year PhD student in the Health Behavior Research Program. After receiving her B.S in Psychology and Medicine, Health, and Society from Vanderbilt University, she has conducted research testing approaches to improving diet, smoking cessation, increasing physical activity, multiple behavior change, and treatment adherence using wearable devices and apps. Shirlene's focus is on understanding and catalyzing diet and physical activity behavior change using mHealth approaches such as ecological momentary assessment (EMA) under the guidance of mentor Dr. Genevieve Dunton.