Women Scientists in Action
Suzanne O’Neill, Ph.D.
Suzanne O’Neill, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Oncology in the Cancer Control Program at the Lombardi Comprehensive Center at Georgetown University. She is a behavioral scientist and licensed clinical psychologist who studies decision-making and health behavior relevant to cancer prevention and control.
Dr. O’Neill studied psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame. Her first research interests were in the areas of risk and resiliency. “I wanted to understand what allowed some people to cope with stressful or traumatic events and adversity and to even thrive after being exposed to such circumstances,” explains Dr. O’Neill. While there, she worked with Dr. David Cole, who is now at Vanderbilt, researching child depression and social cognitive theory. According to Dr. O’Neill, Dr. Cole “was the first in a long line of excellent, generous mentors in my career.”
After graduation from Notre Dame, Dr. O’Neill received a Master’s degree in counseling psychology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, followed by working for two years as a research assistant in the Human Behavioral Pharmacology Lab of Dr. Stephen Higgins at the University of Vermont.
She then entered a doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of Delaware. In addition to coursework and teaching, she participated in a clinical internship in behavioral medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina Charleston DVA consortium. She performed her dissertation research at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University, working on studies of behavioral issues around BRCA1/2 testing. This was a pivotal experience for Dr. O’Neill, as it was her first exposure to the field where she remains to this day. She says, “I became very interested with how individuals would interpret, apply and cope with the individualized risk information that genetic susceptibility test results provide and how this translates to health behavior decisions.”
After receiving her doctorate in 2004, Dr. O’Neill received a competitive postdoctoral fellowship to join the Cancer Control Education Program at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. While there, she gained expertise in the fields of cancer prevention and control. Her primary project involved assessing interest among breast cancer patients towards the use of genomic tests that look for biomarkers of tumor recurrence. They found that the majority of women in their study would eagerly take these tests to make informed decisions about treatment. However, they found that emotional factors colored treatment decisions. During this time, she also worked pro bono as a psychologist at the UNC Hospital Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, where she specialized in working with patients recovering from traumatic injuries. She then joined the Social and Behavioral Research Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at NIH, winning a prestigious NIH Women’s Health Fellowship, funded by Batelle through the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health in collaboration with the NIH Intramural Program on Research on Women’s Health, the Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the Office of Intramural Research. At NHGRI, she trained with Dr. Colleen McBride, continuing her interest in investigating clinical applications of genomic advances. Dr. McBride expressed pride in her former fellow, saying “Suzanne’s work is essential to inform best practices in applying genomics-informed treatments for cancer patients.”
Dr. O’Neill joined the Georgetown faculty in 2008 as a tenure-track assistant professor, where she studies the clinical integration of cancer genomics and other novel technologies. Her work is funded by the American Cancer Society and the Prevent Cancer Foundation and she is Co-Investigator on several NIH-funded grants. She serves as a member of several national research organizations, including as an executive board member of the American Society of Preventative Oncology and as Co-Chair of the Health Decision Making special interest group of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. To date, Dr. O’Neill has authored twenty-nine peer-reviewed publications, as well as a book chapter on public health genomics.
Outside of the office, Dr. O’Neill enjoys spending time with her husband and young daughter. When asked how she manages to juggle family life with a demanding career, she said, “I've had to improve my time management, ability to delegate, flexibility and ability to prioritize, which benefits my work now that I've been at it for a few years.”She also graciously acknowledges all of the mentors along the way who have fostered her interest in science and contributed to her career success.
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