Featured Investigator: Phoenix Matthews

Phoenix Matthews Headshot

August 2023: Phoenix Matthews, Ph.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist  
Professor Emeritus, the University of Illinois Chicago;  
Professor and Bobbi Berkowitz Endowed Research Chair   
Columbia University School of Nursing

Dr. Phoenix A. Matthews is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois Chicago, where they served as tenured faculty in the School of Nursing for twenty years. They are a Behavioral Sciences professor and Bobby Berkowitz, Endowed Research Chair at Columbia University School of Nursing. They earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Binghamton University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the National Cancer Institute at the University of Illinois Chicago. Dr. Matthews has engaged in cancer prevention and control research for twenty-five years with various underserved populations, including sexual and gender minorities. Primary research areas have included cancer survivorship, cancer screening, and the development of cancer risk reduction interventions. They have served as the Principle investigator of six NIH-funded research including conducting one of the first randomized clinical trials of a culturally targeted smoking cessation treatment for LGBTQ+ adults who smoke. Dr. Matthews' dedication to research excellence is reflected in their extensive publication record, with more than 175  peer-reviewed articles. They also contributed to three Institute of Medicine Reports related to cancer and LGBTQ health. Dr. Matthews has been a visiting research scholar in Japan, Thailand, and Malawi. Dr. Matthews is also an active member of several professional organizations, serving on committees and boards, such as the National LGBT Cancer Network, which aims to promote equity and justice in health and healthcare outcomes. They have received numerous awards, including the Distinguished Researcher Award from the School of Nursing at the University of Illinois Chicago, Induction into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame, receipt of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association Health Professionals Advancing LGBT Equality Achievement Award, and the ‘Healthy Chicago Award’ from the Chicago Department of Public Health. 

Q: What are your current research interests?  
A: My program of research focuses on cancer prevention and control in underserved populations. My currently funded research examines patient portals' use to increase referral and linkage of low-income smokers receiving care at federally qualified health centers to state tobacco quitlines. Additionally, I am conducting preliminary research to examine the feasibility and acceptability of culturally targeted lung cancer screening interventions for older adults with a history of chronic smoking.

Q: Tell us about your career path – how did you end up where you are now?  
A: My original career goals were to work as a health psychologist in a medical center and to provide clinical care to cancer patients and their families. Within a couple of years, it became apparent that Black and Brown patients were disproportionately impacted by cancers that were either avoidable or detectable at earlier, more treatable stages. I determined that I was too far downstream of the problem, and I engaged in several years of additional research training to prepare me to conduct intervention research. I subsequently left the healthcare setting for a more traditional academic appointment. However, those early experiences as a clinician informed my research trajectory.    

Q: What organizational challenges have you faced?  
A: At the beginning of my career, LGBTQ+ health research was a new and highly contested area of scholarship in the health sciences. I had the privilege of being mentored by numerous trailblazers in this space, including Tonda Hughes, Deb Bowen, and Judy Bradford, and peers such as Scout and Uli Boehmer, that assisted me in navigating many professional and organizational barriers to success. That being said, I did encounter barriers to funding, publication, and finding an academic community as colleagues challenged the "appropriateness" of my research. Thankfully,  those experiences are less common, but I recognize that I spent the formative years of my career at the University of Illinois Chicago, where I had the mentorship and support to pursue my research and where "scholar-activism" was modeled to advance social justice. However, a safe and supportive academic environment only exists for some students and junior faculty members. As such, we, as an academic community, need to do more to ensure the success of the next generation of researchers.    

Q: What advice do you have for trainees and researchers who want to work in this area or are interested in applying for NIH funding?   
A: I suggested they complete their dissertation and postdoctoral fellowships with faculty with active research areas in their focal areas. This type of direct training is invaluable for obtaining the content expertise, knowledge of research methods and approaches, and the day-to-day skills needed to conduct high-quality research. I also suggest attending conferences regularly to understand innovative research and attend as many grant-funding seminars and training programs as possible. The most impactful training opportunities I have had were opportunities to review grant applications. Participating on review panels, initially for smaller organizations and then for NIH, allowed me to understand the progress for writing successful grants, but more importantly, what types of issues led to more poorly reviewed grants.

Q: Do you have any specific advice for working with and involving SGM populations in research?  
A: Again, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of training. Outside of a few areas, such as HIV and substance use, SGM research remains a relatively new area of inquiry. Individuals interested in this area of research must first understand best practices related to measurement, theory, recruitment, retention, and intervention approaches associated with SGM research. In addition, new researchers must be an expert in the larger health issue that they are addressing. For example, to develop expertise in smoking cessation among SGM adults, one needs to understand the general tobacco literature related to risk and protective factors, theoretical approaches, measurement of tobacco use, analytic approaches, and the variety of evidence-based interventions. From there, one must understand the specific literature on SGM smokers and where gaps and opportunities exist for novel research questions. And finally, to apply best practices related to tobacco cessation and SGM populations when developing grant applications. Training, training, and training is what I advise. Further, two critical pieces of advice that I learned early on that helped me with my work were: just because it has not been done in SGM populations is not in and of itself an appropriate justification for a research study. It is essential to establish why we think the risk factors, mechanisms, or outcomes of SGM individuals may differ. The second was that one must be cautious when proposing culturally targeted approaches. Preliminary data should show that SGM individuals do less well in standard interventions, that a culturally targeted intervention shows promise for addressing the specific factors contributing to poorer outcomes, and that the targeted intervention is methodologically sound with good feasibility and acceptability outcomes.         

Q: Who inspires you?  
A: I am inspired by the youth who are currently making their way through the gauntlet of higher education. They are advocating for change, elevating the bar, and making a difference. We see you!

Q: Any final words of wisdom?  
A: Follow your heart but lead with science!

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