Research is one of the most powerful tools we have for understanding how socioeconomic factors contribute to the impact cancer has on different populations. Reginald Tucker-Seeley (BSBA ’95), assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the Center for Community-Based Research, dedicates his time to joining that discussion. With grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, he leads research efforts to evaluate how a person’s financial well-being impacts health outcomes across the cancer continuum, from prevention to end-of-life care.
“We don’t have good measures of financial well-being right now,” Tucker-Seeley explains. “We usually measure socioeconomic status with questions such as income, education and insurance status; however, while two people may report the same level of income on a survey, each may live that income in very different ways. Measuring financial well-being allows us to tap into that differential experience to better capture how individuals are managing and navigating their socioeconomic status.”
Tucker-Seeley’s road to Harvard began with a seemingly unrelated career in accounting. The North Little Rock, Arkansas native attended TU on a scholarship from Phillips Petroleum and the Boys and Girls Club of America that required him to major in engineering, law or accounting. On the decision to major in accounting, he says, “I didn’t know anyone who was an accountant — or an engineer or lawyer for that matter — at the time, but being a first-generation college student, I was primarily focused on making sure I picked a major I liked and that I could get a job when I finished my degree.”
It was during his studies abroad at Richmond College in London that Tucker-Seeley began to fall in love with the social and behavioral sciences. He had the opportunity to take courses in psychology, anthropology and sociology and explore human behavior, and found he enjoyed the reading and assignments in these courses much more than his accounting courses. But, at the time, he had no idea how he could build a career in social science or what kind of job he could get. Instead, he returned to TU and finished his accounting coursework and then worked in the finance department of St. Louis-based Spectrum Healthcare Services for a year-and-a-half before taking a position as an internal auditor at Saint Louis University (SLU).
Two positions into his accounting career, Tucker-Seeley knew it wasn’t his calling. “I recalled my love of the social science courses I had taken in London and knew I wanted to do something in that area,” he says. He took advantage of the tuition benefits at SLU to explore how he could translate a passion for social sciences into a livelihood. “I started to research what people with a social science background do and thought that pursuing a doctoral program in counseling or clinical psychology was what I wanted to do,” he says. Tucker-Seeley enrolled in the M.A. in counseling and family therapy program at SLU and enjoyed it so much that he quit his job to attend school full time — only to discover during his clinical internship that practicing as a therapist wasn’t really a good fit for him, either. He explains, “I just didn’t have anything left at the end of the day for anyone else. I would come home to my partner, Kevon, and feel completely wiped out physically and emotionally.”
While working on the thesis for his MA degree, Tucker-Seeley read an article on the bio-psycho-social approach to health by Norman Anderson, Ph.D., a professor in the Health and Social Behavior Department at the Harvard School of Public Health. “After reading that article, I realized I wanted to do the kind of work he was doing.”
The Health and Social Behavior department focused on the social determinants of health. “With that phrase, the ‘social determinants of health,’ it seemed that I had finally found the language to describe my interests.” Tucker-Seeley applied and was accepted to the Harvard School of Public Health where he completed master and doctoral degrees and a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer prevention and control.
Tucker-Seeley explains that his research focus has evolved from his varied collective experiences. “Given what I work on now, it may look like I planned a career path that included both accounting and mental health, but my current research on financial well-being is really a matter of combining my past experiences and an interest in ensuring that we address the differential health outcomes of vulnerable individuals.”
When describing the long-term impact his research will have on our understanding of population health, Tucker-Seeley notes that cancer is one of the most expensive diseases to manage, and the costs continue to rise. “If we can figure out at what point families experience financial hardship and the factors that impact their financial well-being as they navigate care, we can develop better interventions for those families so that cancer doesn’t cause financial ruin for the household.”