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Community and Behavioral Health - Colorado School of Public Health


Nancy Rumbaugh Whitesell, PhD 

Associate Professor 

Summary of Research and Teaching Interests:

Dr. Whitesell's substantive expertise and research interests center around child and adolescent development in American Indian communities – and in how developmental science can inform preventive interventions to improve outcomes for youth in these communities.  She does work both at the transition to adolescence and in early childhood.  Her adolescent work has a particular focus on the prevention of early substance use and related problems (e.g., sexual risk).  Her early childhood work is focused on research within the context of tribal early home visitation programs and Head Start/Early Head Start programs.

Dr. Whitesell's methodological expertise is in two quite distinct arenas, and both inform her substantive work.  First, she is actively involved in community-based participatory research with American Indian communities, working with tribal partners on research that is relevant to their communities and helping to build local capacity for research.  Second, she has expertise in latent variable statistical methods, using measurement and longitudinal models (e.g., factor models, latent class models, structural equation models, latent growth curve models) to more accurately understand developmental processes.

Research Interests:
  • Child and adolescent development
  • American Indian health
  • Impact of early exposure to stress and trauma on developmental outcomes 
  • Substance abuse prevention
  • Current Research Projects:
    1. NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse: BRIDGE – Building Research Infrastructure for Dissemination, Goals, and Education (2010-2012, Principal Investigator): Building on an almost 20-year partnership, researchers at the Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health at the University of Colorado Denver and partners within the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s (OST) Health Administration seek to transform OST’s community research infrastructure through addressing 4 specific aims: 1) to expand and elaborate upon a health research agenda, expected to be initially focused on substance abuse prevention programs for youth; 2) to develop bidirectional mechanisms for training the research workforce; 3) to cultivate effective dissemination methods for returning research findings to the local community, providing the tribe, other researchers, service providers, and policy makers with the best available information about OST health; and 4) to systematize procedures developed here to provide templates for building sustainable research infrastructure in Native and other communities.
    2. NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse: EAST – Early Adolescent Substance use Trajectories (2009–2012, Principal Investigator): Specific Aims: 1) Extend descriptions of development of substance use among AI youth into early adolescence; 2) Estimate the relationship between stressful events and early substance use development in this population; 3) Determine whether early puberty has an important relationship to early substance use; explore how early puberty interacts with other stressors to impact risk and how deviant peer influences mediate these links; and 4) Explore how parenting and connection to tribal culture modify risk for early substance use.
    3. NIH/National Institute on Drug Abuse: NCRE II: Native Children's Development in the context of substance use (2010-2015, Principal Investigator): Specific aims: 1) Facilitate interaction and exchange of information among scholars studying child development in Native communities, focusing on research on the effects of contextual substance use (e.g., parental, extended family, community, and peer) on children’s development, and on the developmental course of children’s own substance abuse problems; 2) Foster collaborative relationships to advance our understanding of substance use and Native children’s development; and 3) Provide mentorship to researchers new to developmental research in Native communities, with a particular emphasis on increasing the number of scholars prepared to conduct high quality research on substance use disparities and children’s development in Native communities.
    4. Administration for Children and Families: Tribal early childhood Research Center (2011-2016, Co-Investigator): Specific Aims: 1) to engage in a participatory process of consultation with key stakeholders and collaboration with tribal Head Start and Home Visitation programs to foster a community of learning; 2) to support and conduct research and measurement development; 3) to enhance program evaluation and research-to-practice activities; 4) to disseminate the findings of the proposed center broadly; and, 5) to train the next generation of researchers to work effectively with HS/EHS, MIECHV, and other early childhood programs in AI/AN communities.
    5. Administration for Children and Families: An Evaluation of Parent Child Interaction Therapy and the Emotional Availability Intervention: Mitigating Toxic Stress Among American Indian & Alaska Native Children in Early Head Start (2011-2016, Co-Investigator): The goals of this project are as follows: 1) to examine the nature, extent, and developmental course of environmental stressors among young American Indian children between the ages of 10-48 months and explore the relationship between hair cortisol as a biological marker of stress among young American Indian children and their caregivers; 2) to culturally adapt and integrate Parent Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) and the Emotional Availability Intervention (EAI) models for implementation with American Indian children and families served by a tribal Early Head Start program; and, 3) to test the effectiveness of the adapted PCIT with and without early EAI for decreasing the chronic stress response (i.e. cortisol) among children and their caregivers, increasing caregiver sensitivity, and decreasing behavior problems among children experiencing mild to significant levels of environmental stress.
    6. NIH/National Institute on Child Health and Human Development: Parenting and Adolescents: A Pooled Data Analysis of Ethnically Diverse Families (2010-2012, Co-Investigator): Aims: Through the collaborative work of the 10 members and 4 affiliates of the Study Group on Culture, Race, and Ethnicity (SGRCE): 1): to aggregate data from 11 studies into a single dataset that contains large samples of European American, African American, Chinese-origin, Mexican American, and American Indian families, extensive measures of parenting, and youths' behavioral and academic outcomes, self- perceptions, and demographic, family, and neighborhood variables; 2) to evaluate a conceptual model of inter- relationships between parenting constructs and youths' adjustment; 3) to examine whether models vary across ethnic groups; and 4) to utilize findings from the pooled-data analysis to generate hypotheses regarding cultural processes.
     Courses Taught:
  • American Indian Field Experience (CBHS 6670)
    1-credit elective course for Public Health students that includes readings and discussion about community-based participatory research, an introduction to American Indian history and culture, and a week-long immersion experience on a South Dakota Indian reservation
  • Latent Variable Methods (CBHS 7010)
    3-credit course advanced statistical methods course, required for students in the Doctor of Public Health program in Community and Behavioral Health and open to masters and doctoral students in other programs at the Colorado School of Public Health and the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus.
  • Education:
  • Baylor University, BA, Psychology, 1981
  • University of Denver, MA, Developmental Psychology, 1987
  • University of Denver, PhD, Developmental Psychology, 1989

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