Alumna Elizabeth O’Neal: Finding the road to injury prevention

By Debra Venzke

Published on December 14, 2021

Postdoctoral research fellow Elizabeth O’Neal’s (16MPH) self-described “nontraditional route” to injury prevention blends developmental psychology and public health.

Parents are an important source of education and guidance as children learn to navigate the world independently. Elizabeth O’Neal researches the role that parents play in teaching kids about safe behavior, whether it’s crossing streets, driving a car, or assessing other potentially dangerous situations.

O’Neal is currently a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, the Injury Prevention Research Center in the College of Public Health, and the National Advanced Driving Simulator at the University of Iowa. She uses virtual environments to study these parent-child interactions with the goal of developing interventions to prevent childhood injuries.

Exploring New Avenues

O’Neal completed a PhD in developmental psychology in 2018 and an MPH in 2016 at Iowa.

“I had a nontraditional route to get here,” says O’Neal, who earned a BA in communications with an emphasis in public relations at Mississippi State University. Following graduation, she worked in sales, then opened a small business in Birmingham, Alabama, with her brother. Unfortunately, she says, “The timing was not good.” After a promising first year, the 2008 economic crisis hit and they were forced to close the business.

“I started exploring new avenues,” she says. “I enjoyed the business world but didn’t love it, and decided I wanted to go back to school and pursue a degree in psychology.”

While completing a post-baccalaureate program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, she volunteered at a lab that conducted injury prevention studies. The experience sparked her interest in research.

“We were using virtual environments to train children to safely cross streets, which is why I ended up applying to the developmental psychology program at Iowa,” O’Neal says. “Professors Jodie Plumert and Joe Kearney had a very sophisticated virtual environment.” 

Once she was at Iowa, O’Neal connected with the Injury Prevention Research Center and started attending the center’s informal networking meetings.

She soon realized that psychology and public health often approach the same problems in injury prevention, “but we talk about them very differently,” she says. Attending the IPRC meetings and taking several injury prevention courses cemented her decision to pursue an MPH along with her doctoral degree.

Making a Difference

O’Neal enjoyed research, but “I didn’t want to do research just for discovery’s sake,” she says. “I really wanted it to have an impact and make a difference. Injury prevention felt like a field in which I could do that. The work I was doing at UAB made that really clear to me. We can develop behavioral interventions that change injury risk in childhood.”

O’Neal’s research has included using developmental science and the Hank Virtual Environments Lab to safely study children’s road-crossing behaviors and parent conversations with their children around road safety.

She also worked with the IPRC during her graduate studies on two school bus crash projects, and her doctoral dissertation focused on parent-child interactions related to pedestrian safety among children with and without ADHD.

In 2021, O’Neal was awarded a prestigious K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The award helps outstanding postdoctoral researchers complete needed mentored training and transition in a timely manner to independent, tenure-track or equivalent faculty positions. Professors Corinne Peek-Asa and Jodie Plumert are O’Neal’s primary and secondary mentors, respectively.

Safer Teen Drivers

The purpose of O’Neal’s project is to study the impact of parental instruction and teen drivers’ ability to identify and respond to potential road hazards.

The first phase of research currently underway is examining and describing parent-teen conversations about hazard identification and mitigation. The second and third phases will develop and then test an intervention that teaches parents to better communicate with their teens about identifying potential hazards on the roadway.

“As part of my postdoc, I was evaluating novice teen driver training programs that were meant to teach teens to anticipate potential hazards on the roadway,” O’Neal explains. “This is something that novice teen drivers aren’t very good at. During the learner phase of licensure, there are almost no crashes with teens behind the wheel. What we see as soon as teens are driving without supervision, that crash rate spikes really high, and it starts to slowly come down over the first 18 months of licensure. So there’s some sort of disconnection between what’s happening while kids are learning to drive, and then what they’re learning from experience.”

There isn’t much research on this topic, O’Neal says, but a few studies show that parents don’t engage in a lot of conversation around teaching kids to anticipate what’s going to happen next. “We found from our pedestrian work that when parents do that, behavior is better,” she says. “I want to create a parent-focused intervention that helps teens acquire this skill during the learner phase of licensure.”

During the third phase, the study will bring in teens to drive in the National Advanced Driving Simulator and look at differences between groups who receive the intervention and those who don’t.

Although the research project is still in its early stages, the work so far is promising. “Anecdotally, we’re seeing parents give their kids lots of great information [about identifying potential hazards],” O’Neal says. “It tells us parents can do this, they just need the right tools.”

Photo by Tom Langdon

This story originally appeared in the fall 2021 issue of InSight.