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David Strauser
David Strauser is a professor in the Kinesiology and Community Health Department of AHS

A Few Minutes With David Strauser

Vince Lara, media relations specialist at the College of Applied Health Sciences at the University of Illinois, speaks with David Strauser, professor of Kinesiology and Community Health at Illinois, about Dr. Strauser's research on work personality and vocational behavior with a focus on people with chronic health conditions and disabilties.

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VINCE LARA: Hi, and welcome to another edition of A Few Minutes With, the podcast that showcases Illinois College of Applied Health Sciences. I'm Vince Lara, and today I'll speak to Dr. David Strauser of our Kinesiology and Community Health Department about his research on work personality and vocational behavior with a focus on people with chronic health conditions and disability.

All right. Speaking with Dr. David Strauser. Dr. Strauser, I appreciate you taking the time to come on with our podcast. The first question I ask when I meet with faculty is I'm interested-- I do my prep as any journalist would, and I try to find out-- hmm, I wonder what led this person to our fine institution? Your background is at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is where you got your degrees. So I wonder what led you to Illinois.

DAVID STRAUSER: That's a good question. There's probably a variety of things that led me to the University of Illinois. I came to the University of Illinois from the University of Memphis where I spent 10 years. And that was the first job that I got after completing my PhD at the University Wisconsin-Madison. Down there, I started a research center, had about 30 people working for me. We were doing a lot of work across the state of Tennessee in the southeast.

And then this opportunity came available at the University of Illinois. And I think for a combination of probably family reasons, being a native Midwesterner, and also an opportunity to be at a school like Illinois, it just seemed like a nice opportune time to make that switch from the University of Memphis to the University of Illinois. And a chance to be in a Big Ten school, at a big research school just seemed like a hard opportunity to turn down.

Also, I think Illinois is a little bit unusual compared to other programs in the Big Ten that have my area of study that it focused a little bit more on health and health behavior. And so that was something that maybe initially didn't come into the mix but became a point of what I really appreciated over the course of my time here.

VINCE LARA: Are you from the Midwest originally?

DAVID STRAUSER: I'm from Madison, Wisconsin originally.

VINCE LARA: That makes sense. I know research is a big part of this job, obviously. But did you always want to teach? Was that something that was top of mind, or was it the research first for you?

DAVID STRAUSER:: That's a really good question. And I would say it's probably teaching first, research second. I started out as an undergraduate thinking that I would go on and do-- as an athlete, I was going to go on and do coaching of some kind. So I think that was always kind of my focus as an undergraduate.

And I had some very influential faculty people who pulled me aside and said, hey, what about me be doing this? What about looking at this opportunity? And that started to peak my interest enough to go look into it a little bit deeper. After completing my undergraduate, I was out in the private sector for about a year or so and decided, you know, this is good, but really being affiliated with the university and pursuing that academic work would really be something that I'd want to do as a career.

With that then became the teaching, and then the research developed through my work as a doctoral student to really look at their research. But I was very much trained from faculty at UW Madison who trained me as a professor. So when we talk about a professor, in my opinion, it's the research, teaching, and service together. It's not just one aspect of it. So that relates to your first question about being in Illinois. I think Illinois gives me an opportunity to do all three of those core components of being a professor, and that's teaching, research, and service.

VINCE LARA: Focusing on that research part, now, your research, to an extent, focuses on work, health, and well-being. And I'm wondering, commonly with researchers, there's something that inspired them to look at that. And I was wondering if there's anything that inspired you to look at those research lines.

DAVID STRAUSER:: Yeah, that's an interesting story probably as a reflecting back on it. Again, as I was an athlete in college and struggled with injuries in college, it became losing the opportunity to compete in college because of injuries. I guess that was happening at the same time that I had some of these influential faculty in my year talking about, hey, what about pursuing rehabilitation psychology as a career? What about some of those things? So I guess serendipity of those things coming together.

That extended then to probably my first job, as I mentioned, before I went back to graduate school, and that was working with injured workers in Southern California. And through that and my own experience of injury and then working with industrial injured workers solidified my interest into working with people with disabilities as a whole and working with people who are having problems working-- pursuing their careers because they have an injury or illness.

VINCE LARA: Yeah. You get some of your research was in marginalized workers. Could you talk a bit about that?

DAVID STRAUSER: Yeah, I think that's a pretty big term, marginalized workers, in that it's a good word. It's an encompassing word. I look at-- especially right now, for probably about the last 15 years, I've really looked at young adults who are having a hard time entering the labor market for some reason related to a chronic health condition, whether that's cancer-- I do a large group of that. Could be some mental health issues, autism.

So they've been marginalized because they have a chronic health condition. We have a project right now where we're looking at foster care youth, formerly incarcerated or justice involved youth. So you're correct to save my work has always looked at people who've been marginalized from entry or participation in the labor market, usually because of some chronic health condition or combination thereof.

So my research has focused a lot on undergraduate-- or I mean younger adults in terms of their entrance in the labor market. Probably an advocacy side of me has continued to deal with industrial injured workers-- I'll use that term-- people who've been injured on the job and advocating for their overall well-being and helping them manage and deal with their loss. So that's probably more of an outreach service component of it than it is a research part, where my research is primarily focusing on these young adults' entrance into the labor market.

VINCE LARA: So what particularly do you deal with? Is it trying to overcome the stigma of what these workers have dealt with?

DAVID STRAUSER: Most people who have chronic health conditions are likely to experience difficulty in meeting the demands of working how it's typically performed. So they're having some issue with meeting the job requirements or figuring out how they identify with the labor market. They may-- for example, somebody might have an interest in doing something as a career, but because they have a limitation or a functional impairment, can't pursue that, so that causes a lot of stress. So I deal with that.

There also is just a lot of people right now and a lot that we more to learn about mental health that they're having a lot of mental health issues that are impacting their ability to function on the job and meet the demands on the job. So they might get a job but they can't keep a job. And so after a period of time, they start to develop that resume that looks very scattered, very thin in terms of duration on the job. And that becomes then stigmatizing and marginalized.

So stigma is an issue, obviously, that everybody deals with with chronic health conditions. That is something I deal with, but I'm more interested in how they fit to the environment, how do they see themselves fitting as a worker, and how did they develop their identity as a worker.

VINCE LARA: Has your research ever led to you being a consultant for either a company or perhaps an industry looking to help these marginalized workers get back in?

DAVID STRAUSER: I do a lot of work with a group called Children's Brain Tumor Foundation, where I work a lot with them to help young adult cancer survivors and businesses help understand issues related to cancer survivors, try to help that fit. So yes, I've worked with some non-profits and some NGOs to work with them to understand, develop plans, develop programs to help them address these issues.

VINCE LARA: You developed what's called the Illinois Work and Well-being Model. I'm interested about that. Tell me a little bit what that is.

DAVID STRAUSER: Yeah, the Illinois Work and Well-Being Model is kind of a byproduct of my 30 years of in this field of how I was thinking about career stuff and finally came together for me as a model, where in our field, in the health field, we use a lot of the International Classification of Functioning or the ICF. So I use components of the ICF and then Common Career Development domains and mesh those two together.

And the model really tries to explain about how people's functioning and how their personal environmental factors impact how they function and how their functioning impacts the career domains of how people become aware of what they are in terms of what they want to do, their vocational identity, how they go about acquiring jobs, and how they go about maintaining jobs.

And so that model helps provide a framework for research, and it's guided a lot of my research over my whole career. Probably the last four or five years it's been formalized as a model that we're using to guide our research, to help us identify factors and variables. But also, we've been using it quite a bit with practitioners to help them guide their services to identify where interventions might need to be placed, where are points of intervention.

So as an example, if we're having a person, a young adult cancer survivor who has a brain tumor, they're trying to figure out, where do I fit into the world of work? What am I going to do? How am I going to do it? We might want to look at their functioning. What are the residual factors of their brain tumor? How do they function in terms of physically, cognitively, emotionally? And how do they communicate? And look at that.

However, even though as we look at those factors or those components, we also understand that personal factors, psychological factors such as resilience, hope, self-efficacy, impact how they perceive their functioning. In addition, environmental factors-- ethnicity, social class. I say ethnicity. Ethnicity is a personal factor, but their cultural background. Their social factors, their schooling, their family also impact how they perceive their functioning.

So we want to make sure that we're looking at all those factors and then how do they relate over to the career domain and those three factors I talked about in terms of awareness. We call it awareness. Basically, vocational identity. Acquisition and maintenance.

VINCE LARA: You always have research going on, several projects in the pipeline. That's one of the things you have to do.


VINCE LARA: What are some of the ones that you have that you're excited about, that can talk about, say?

DAVID STRAUSER: Yeah. We actually have a lot of good stuff going on right now, and I'm very excited about it. We're at a good time. We're having a lot of data and a lot of projects. So we are right now-- a couple things. In terms of the cancer group, we have several data sets right now, one with Dana Farber, one with Children's Brain Tumor Foundation, where we're looking at these psychological career factors that impact employment and employment outcomes with a group of brain tumor survivors.

What's really exciting about that, and this might-- compared to people in other areas like epidemiology or even breast cancer, our data set combined right now is we have about 300 brain tumor survivors. That's quite a good number for brain tumor survivors. So it's a hard group to get. So we have some data there that we're starting to analyze and look at working with these Dana Farber and Children's Brain Tumor Foundation that look at what are these factors that impact employment outcomes.

And we're very excited about that. We have several papers submitted right now. They're under review. A couple of papers that have been accepted that are looking at using the Illinois Model, as we talked about, looking at how functioning and perception of functioning impacts the different domains of career. Highlight to that would be we're starting to get good evidence to suggest that how people's emotional function, the perceptions of their emotional functioning, really impact a lot of their identity development, contributes some to the acquisition phase.

Conversely, we know that people now who start to-- how they perceive themselves physically really has a lot to do with how they perceive their ability to maintain a job. So what we can start to do there is start to parse out of, where people are in their career development, what our interventions need to target and what areas of functioning do we need to maybe support or address to maximize outcomes? So that's very exciting with that.

Another population that we're starting to look at or another group that we're working with is, as I mentioned, a broader group of people with disabilities looking at developing some instruments related to the Illinois Work and Well-Being Model. We have a couple of instruments being developed right now to measure some of those constructs within the model, so we're very excited about that. That's not as maybe exciting, but for us, that's a very practical piece.

Another area that we're really starting to get into because we have seen it quite a bit with the young adults in foster care and the formerly incarcerated young adults is the issue of trauma and how trauma is impacting them, but how trauma is impacting their perceptions of their career development and their career development opportunities. And not surprisingly, we're finding again there's quite a bit of an impact there in terms of how much trauma, how they're experiencing that trauma, how they feel about that trauma, how close to the surface, so to speak, that trauma is is going to be impacting a lot of how they see themselves as a worker, their identity, and their motivation to pursue those things.

VINCE LARA: My thanks to David Strauser. For more podcasts on Illinois' College of Applied Health Sciences, search A Few Minutes With on iTunes, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Stitcher, and other places you get your podcasts fix. Thanks for listening, and see you next time.

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