Public Health professor continues to make her mark, receives prestigious award

Upon receiving the EDGES Fellowship, McKyer illustrates her unconventional journey to success
October 23, 2020

Lisako J. McKyer, MPH, PhD, has accomplished much in her career. She holds several research, teaching and administrative positions within the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, including the senior associate dean for climate and diversity, associate director for the Center for Community Health Development, director of the school-wide doctoral program and professor for the Department of Health Promotion & Community Health Sciences. Additionally, she has a joint-appointment with the Department of Humanities in Medicine in the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

Of all her activities at Texas A&M, McKyer is especially passionate about her research, which she describes as “really fun.” McKyer’s research has made her an internationally-recognized expert on social and structural determinants of health inequities, specifically focusing on rural minority maternal, infant, child and adolescent health disparities. In recognition for her outstanding research efforts, she was recently presented the Chancellor Enhancing Development and Generating Excellence in Scholarship (EDGES) Fellowship, an award to support and honor mid-career faculty who are making significant achievements in their respective field.

Humble beginnings

Although McKyer is now an inspiration to many students and colleagues, she insists that she is still learning and is humbled by her journey’s challenges. McKyer’s journey began in Japan where she was born. Her father was in the American military and was the first foreigner McKyer’s Japanese mother had ever met. “I’m not sure my mother knew what to think of my father when she first met him, but they fell in love anyway,” McKyer said, laughing.

When McKyer was an adolescent, her family moved to California. It was here that McKyer first experienced bouts of racism and discrimination that would later influence her research interests in public health. “My brother was such a sweet kid, and he would never do anything bad, but he was blamed for every single thing that went missing in the neighborhood just because he was Black,” McKyer explained. “This time during my childhood was my crash course into issues of climate and equity and social justice.”

In high school, McKyer participated on the cheerleading and dance squad and also considered herself “sort of a nerd” who enjoyed learning. However, she flunked out of her first try at college. A few years later, with newfound determination, she went back to college to start her undergraduate degree at the age of 26. She majored in psychology and graduated in 1995, immediately enrolling in a top-ranked doctoral program at Indiana University to study pediatric clinical psychology.

Doctoral dilemmas

During her doctoral program, McKyer helped develop therapeutic interventions for children in hospitals who were sick and terminally ill. Seeing children in that stage broke McKyer’s heart, but also germinated her interest in public health. “I took a few public health classes and loved it,” McKyer said. “Public health appealed to me because we could help stop kids from ever getting sick in the first place.”

Nearing the end of the doctoral program, McKyer was faced with another challenge that changed the course of her entire career. “My advisor and I had a falling out, at which time she told me that I wasn’t ‘PhD material,’” McKyer said. “She suggested I think about getting a master’s degree at most and finish my schooling.”

Feeling utterly discouraged, McKyer thought about what her plan B might be. She was still interested in public health, and had nearly enough credit hours to earn an MPH. However, she needed additional funding to complete those remaining credit hours. A faculty member from public health offered to give her the funding to complete an MPH, but there was a catch. To get the funding, she had to promise she would stay at Indiana University and pursue yet another PhD, this time within the field of public health. “That was the last thing I wanted!” McKyer said. “I just wanted to lick my wounds and go home.”

Although she eventually agreed to this arrangement, McKyer doubted she would be accepted into a PhD program. Nevertheless, she completed her MPH in 2000, applied to and was accepted into several top public health doctoral programs, including the PhD program in Health Behavior at Indiana University. Fueled by the determination and emotional strength her parents instilled in her, McKyer pushed herself to achieve what she had tried so hard to do before—earn her doctorate degree.

“It was easier the second time around, for sure,” McKyer said. “So that’s how I ended up with two doctoral program experiences. What I learned from these experiences are: One, students should never have just one person advocate for them. Two, bad mentoring can completely derail somebody. And three, when people believe in you, they’ll hold your head above water. I’m thankful for the faculty that were willing to hold me up when I couldn’t hold myself up.”

Moving to Texas

After earning her PhD in 2005, McKyer and her husband moved to Texas to be closer to family. In 2006, McKyer officially became part of the Aggie family by joining the Department of Health & Kinesiology as an assistant professor with a joint appointment at the School of Public Health, also as an assistant professor. During these years she also became involved with several research organizations at Texas A&M, including the Center for Community Health Development and Institute for Obesity Research & Program Evaluation. In 2015, McKyer applied to and was accepted for a full-time position as an associate professor at the School of Public Health, where she felt she could better accelerate her research.

Since then, McKyer has led and helped lead many successful research projects, including the “Go, Slow, Whoa!” consumer-friendly food labeling system implemented in neighborhood corner stores in Houston to help consumers better understand the nutritional value of foods. “We thought the merchants would be resistant to the food labeling because the high-sugar, high-fat snacks are the ones with high profit margins,” McKyer said. “But it was remarkable to see them change their minds about the type of food they were offering for sale.”

Besides research, McKyer enjoys making a big impact in public health by teaching and training the public health practitioners of the future. “I am building a team of people that can go out and make the changes we want to see,” McKyer said. “We can each go into our own corner of the world and make a difference.”

Whether she is teaching or researching, McKyer implements her role as dean for climate and diversity into her daily routine at the School of Public Health. She stresses the importance of climate and diversity to students and other faculty. Reflecting on discrimination she faced during her childhood, she believes that every community benefits from inclusion and diversity, including educational communities such as the School of Public Health. Diversity and inclusion allow everyone’s strengths to come together to tackle community issues, as well as further tackle issues of racism, discrimination and social justice, all of which can lead to health disparities. McKyer believes that communities are stronger and more successful when they stand together.

Grateful for the past, grateful for the present

As a distinguished professional in her field, McKyer emphasized that overcoming challenges was an integral part of her journey. She doesn’t want anyone to look at her accomplishments without also acknowledging the times she struggled. She attributes much of her success to the support of her family and mentors, reminding others that, “I didn’t do it by myself.”

McKyer loves spending time with her husband and three kids, as well as her two recently adopted dogs. “I feel very fortunate that I have a job I love,” McKyer said. “I love my students, my research staff and my colleagues. At the end of the day, I get to go home to family that I love and who loves me back. How can I not feel really fortunate? I have it good.”

-by Callie Rainosek

— Rae Lynn Mitchell

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