Health Studies professor wins national Innovative Teaching Award for class work, research on social issues

Natalie Sabik honored by American Psychological Association for her use of Intersectionality Toolbox to identify disparities

KINGSTON, R.I. — Dec. 11, 2023 — University of Rhode Island Associate Professor of Health Studies Natalie Sabik has won the 2023 Innovative Teaching Award from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, recognizing her work to address social issues in her classes and curriculum.

The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, a division of the American Psychological Association, offers the annual award for innovative teaching in areas related to the psychological study of social issues. The award recognizes effective courses, assignments or classroom activities addressing social issues. Nominees are society members who have developed innovative pedagogical products that aid in teaching the psychological study of social issues.

Sabik was honored specifically for her use of the Intersectionality Toolbox, an analytical framework that was developed to address the ways in which people’s experiences are shaped based on their intersecting social identities. A teaching and research tool to critically analyze research on current public health issues, the framework consists of a series of questions based on intersectional theory that apply complex and multi-level thinking to critical public health issues. 

“The framework is used to address the way people’s experiences are shaped based on their intersecting social identities, things like gender, race, sexuality, class, age and ability,” Sabik said. “There are unique experiences based on the social groups you are in. A lot of times, that is obscured in traditional health disparities research because we may just be looking at one group identity in isolation, for example gender differences in cardiovascular disease without considering other intersecting factors or social context. The questions are meant to get us beyond the initial observations to illuminate what’s been left out or who has been left out.”

The questions are structured to illuminate blind spots in research; cultural differences in research participants, for instance, historic disparities in the care given to a particular group; or the role of power and privilege in research and health care. The questions change based on the specific topic researchers or students are studying, but often include such queries as:

  • What are the shared social, historical and cultural characteristics of a group?
  • Who is included and who is left out of the research?
  • What is the role of power, inequality and oppression in understanding the issue?
  • What are the social inequalities (such as racism, sexism or classism) that intersect to create and maintain health disparities?

“An intersectional approach in public health is critical for research and teaching to illuminate health disparities and the underlying structures that create and maintain disparities,” Sabik wrote in a Frontiers in Public Health article about her use of the toolbox. “Specifically, intersectionality can be seen as a lens through which students and researchers can investigate health issues that bring to light and make visible both individual experiences and how these are created by patterns of power, privilege, and the social structures and policies that contribute to inequality and a lack of health equity.”

Sabik uses the Intersectionality Toolbox in her own research in the areas of psychology, gender studies, and public health. Specifically, she examines how self-perceptions and identity “get under the skin” to affect individuals’ health and psychological well-being. She examines how perceptions of gender, age, ethnicity and other social and identity factors influence health and well-being, particularly among older women. She also examines potential biological pathways linking social and individual perceptions to health outcomes. Specifically, she examines whether negative self-perceptions, such as low body esteem, are linked to higher levels of stress and consequently, poor health.

Her research provides information about how cultural and social factors contribute to psychological and physical health outcomes, with implications for health disparities across social groups, fitting into the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues’ mission for which she was awarded.

“I was really surprised and honored to get the award,” Sabik said. “I’ve been a member of this organization since I was a grad student, and I go to their conferences regularly. I just in general feel like there are a lot of really smart people in the organization doing really smart things, so to get an award like that truly felt like an honor. They publicize it to everyone who’s a member of the organization, so I heard from a lot of people when I got the award. It felt really good.”