After forging her own path in health communication, Joan Cates retires

By Beth Hatcher

Joan Cates was 59 when she got a Ph.D. in Mass Communication and an M.P.H. in Health Policy at UNC, adding to an already distinguished career that included three decades of front-line health communications and social redevelopment work.

As she retires from the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Cates leaves behind a legacy of breaking the mold — both in her research that broached controversial topics such as the media’s role in shaping awareness to sexually transmitted diseases, and in her nontraditional career path.

Some may have found it daunting to enter graduate school in their 50s, but for Cates it was fun.

“It was so much fun learning a new discipline,” Cates said. “I loved journalism.”

For Cates, “fun” meant groundbreaking research and an almost 20-year career at UNC Hussman, funded in part by the William T. Grant Foundation, of which she served as a principal investigator of the American Youth and Sexually Transmitted Diseases Project from 2002 to 2006.

As part of this project, Cates was responsible for the publication of the first national summary of the scope and impact of STDs in youth in a 2004 report, "Our Voices, Our Lives, Our Futures: Youth and Sexually Transmitted Diseases."

Since 2005, Cates has been an educator at UNC Hussman, teaching graduate students in the Interdisciplinary Health Communication certificate program, of which she was co-director from 2012 to 2019, when the program ended, and master’s track programs.

Cates’ interest in STD research started even before her academic career. While serving as the director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood in Atlanta from 1987 to 1995, she witnessed how the stigma of STDs hobbled their treatment.

“It was a silent disease,” Cates said. “We were trying to figure out how to break open the silence and stigma.”

And Cates’ interest in poverty’s intersection with health was informed by another job — her work with low-income housing development shortly after her graduation from Smith College in the late 1960s. There, she received a bachelor’s degree in economics.

At UNC Hussman, Cates has been able to tie these professional threads together in her research, often leading collaborative teams from across the disciplines of communication, medicine, public health, biostatistics and child psychology, drawn from the campuses of UNC-Chapel Hill, North Carolina Central University and Duke University.

She designed the curriculum for an interdisciplinary health communication course taught every semester from 2007 to 2019.

Cates’ student Autumn Shafer, now an associate professor at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, remembers Cates’ strong attributes as a mentor. “Joan was generous with her time and her advice. She truly cared about helping me succeed. Her feedback was always constructive and encouraging,” Shafer said. “She was an excellent example of leadership that lifted all boats. She made sure that everyone around her had a role in the research she was doing and gave us enough space to take ownership of our individual pieces while still managing the larger project.”

Cates’ more recent research, funded by NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, assesses the extent to which parents and health care providers respond to dissemination strategies by deciding on human papillomavirus vaccine for pre-teen boys.

Sandra Diehl, an implementation specialist at the Franklin Porter Graham Child Development Institute, who has worked with Cates on various projects, spoke of the lasting impact of Cates’ sexual health awareness research and her innovative approaches. “I always appreciated Joan’s strong commitment to adolescent health, in particular HPV prevention and promoting sexual health awareness among preteens,” Diehl said. “Joan also was really creative in how she approached her projects and pivoted as communication preferences and technology changed over time.”

Cates won an IMPACT Award in 2005 for graduate research at UNC. Cates’ publications include articles in the Journal of Adolescent Health, Social Marketing Quarterly, Perspectives in Sexual and Reproductive Health, American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Women's Health Issues, Sex Education and the Journal of Rural Health.

In addition to her distinguished career, Cates raised a family with her late husband of 48 years, Willard “Ward” Cates, a Yale graduate who shared her passion for public health. For many years he worked as an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

“Joan Cates has been one of the cornerstone scholars as our school has built a deep strength in health communication,” said Dean Susan King. “She leaves the school as a leader in research around public health issues. Her legacy will be felt for decades to come as countless individuals will live better, healthier lives as her contributions to health communication research will lead only to greater discoveries to come.”

After retirement, Cates hopes to spend more time with the couple’s two — now grown — daughters and their families, all located in the Southeast.

“I plan to spend time with my grandsons in Richmond and granddaughters in Durham,” Cates said. “I will spend time going up and down Interstate 85.”