As a second-year undergraduate student majoring in psychology at the University of Iowa, Erin Robinson discovered a passion for social work while enrolled in an introductory course on the discipline.
“I fell in love with social work after the first month of that course and applied to the social work program the following semester,” said Robinson, an assistant professor in the University of Missouri School of Health Professions.
That Introduction to Social Work course started Robinson on a path that led her to receive her bachelor’s in social work and psychology. She later earned a master’s in social work and a master’s in public health and her PhD in social work.
Since joining the MU faculty in 2016, Robinson has pursued her passion for social work both as an acclaimed classroom teacher and as a public health social work researcher and gerontologist focused on older adult health — primarily preventative health to ensure health and longevity.
“Gerontology is an important area of study because everyone ages, and we live in a society where people are living longer than they ever had before,” said Robinson, who is the vice president of the Association for Gerontology Education in Social Work. “Therefore, we must ensure we have the proper supports in place to assist people as they age. Over the past couple of decades, we have adapted our systems to help support the Baby Boomer population as they reached retirement age and beyond. While we made great progress, we are still in need of specialized service professionals, and social workers, who have expertise in aging.”
At MU, Robinson’s research has expanded to include studying HIV prevention among the aging population, social support networks to help older adults age in place and eldertechnology research.
She serves as a researcher in the MU Center to Stream Health Care in Place (formerly the Center for Eldercare & Rehabilitation Technology) and as director of the Graduate Certificate in Gerontological Social Work.
Learn more in this Q&A about Robinson’s career path, her research and how she passes her knowledge of social work and aging populations to a new generation of students.
What drew you to public health social work and gerontology in the first place?
The moment I stepped into my first social work class as an undergraduate student, I knew this was the profession for me. The profession’s commitment to building community felt right to me, and I appreciated its social justice roots. While an undergrad, I became interested in HIV outreach work and completed an internship with a public health department. With that work, I was able to see how some of the most marginalized population groups experience health differently than those with privilege. That is more than just a social justice issue, it is a human rights issue. From that experience, I was drawn into HIV work and public health social work. I’ve had an affinity with the aging population since I was young. In middle school during the summers, I would walk over to one of the nursing homes in my small hometown to volunteer. I would read with residents and sit with them to chat. I was fascinated by their life stories and would try to envision what life was like for them as kids and younger adults. I was happy that I could be someone they could socialize with, as it was apparent that they needed that. So many people felt so isolated in their small rooms. I would hold their hands and give them hugs because the connection of human touch is so healing and powerful. Later, in high school, I job shadowed some of the staff at those nursing homes to get a better idea of what it looked like to care for the aging population. I respected the care they provided, and the dignity they afforded their residents. When I ‘grew up’ I wanted to be that kind of person.
What are some of the questions you are seeking answers to in your research of aging populations?
Currently, my research has been focused on how we can help support older adults in their health to allow them to experience a greater quality of life. This has translated into several different areas of research, from patient-provider communication (i.e., information they receive from their health care providers) to HIV prevention, and eldertechnology research. Health means something different for different people, and it changes as we age in our bodies. As a researcher, however, I would like to ensure the supports are in place to help people achieve as good health as they can for as long as they can.
How would define eldertechnology and what is your research into it?
Eldertechnology is the use of various kinds of technology, both every day (i.e., smartwatch or cell phone app) and specialized (i.e., embedded in-home sensors), that can be used to help support the aging population as they age. Much of this technology is health-focused, such as fall detection sensors that can alert family members when a person has fallen in their home and needs support. In collaboration with other MU researchers, we have studied this technology with various groups of older adults to understand how it can best support aging in place.
Your research seeks to be a “solution to the graying of HIV.” How big of an issue is this and what are some of the aims of your research?
Older adults are one of the fastest-growing population groups becoming newly infected with HIV. About 30% of new HIV infections occur among people who are aged 50+. With this population, there are specialized interventions needed to help curb those rates, as compared to the younger generations. I am most interested in how health care providers can act as an intervention point to ensure older adults understand their HIV risk factors and reduce transmission.
In your work, you collaborate with fellow researchers in engineering, nursing and medicine: Why is cross-disciplinary research important to you? How does it improve your research?
Social work is such a broad profession, and we naturally interact with various professions in the work that we do. Therefore, research should be no different. It takes a collaborative approach to tackle the complex issues related to aging, and social work is an integral part of that. I currently work with researchers from nursing, engineering, medicine, occupational therapy, health sciences, mathematics and others to understand how we can best support older adults as they age. When we use an interdisciplinary approach, we can create more holistic interventions than we can alone.
Beyond your research, you’re well-known for your teaching abilities, having won two awards for your outstanding teaching in social work: Why is it important to pass your passion for social work and research to a younger generation?
Sometimes we don’t realize our potential until we challenge ourselves to do greater and are given the resources to do so. Some students have external influencers in their lives helping them reach their potential, and some do not. No matter which groups my students fall into, I believe it is my job to help them become more critical thinkers and skilled in the profession. I often tell my students at the beginning of the semester that I have very high expectations for their performance in my classes, but that I will work hard alongside them to help them reach those expectations. I will also tell them that when they graduate, they will hold the same degree that I do – a degree in social work. Therefore, I am not just training them to do well in school, but I am training them in how I would want to work with them as a colleague.