A Moment with Alison Buttenheim is part of our interview series featuring thought leaders in research and healthcare. Each interview includes 7 short and stimulating questions.

Alison M. Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, is a public health researcher and behavioral epidemiologist who combines her interest in behavioral economics with a focus on improving child health on a global level. For more from Dr. Buttenheim, follow her on Twitter.

1. Tell us something we don’t know. (Anything!)

The first job that a honeybee worker has is as a nursery bee, tending brood. Her last job is as a funeral bee, removing dead bees from the hive. Mindblowing!

2. Which fiction book would you recommend to researchers and innovators in healthcare, and why?

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. In addition to being just a remarkable, expansive, rolicking tale, it’s also full of behavioral science!

3. What are you working on right now that you’re excited about?

I am very excited about “Indlela: Behavioural Insights for Better Health“. Indlela is an HIV-focused “Nudge Unit” in South Africa that Harsha Thirumurthy and I launched with colleagues from HE2RO in South Africa and from the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics here at Penn, with funding from the Gates Foundation. Indlela seeks to build capacity in behavioral science and its application to HIV care among the research and service provider communities in South Africa. Our first year is looking a little different than we planned, but we have several initiatives underway and lots of momentum building.

4. Who’s doing something that you admire in healthcare today, and why is it so cool?

Dr. Gina South, an emergency physician at Penn Medicine, has done really pioneering research over the past few years to understand how time spent in nature affects our mental and physical wellbeing. Dr. South is designing and running multiple observational and experimental studies to demonstrate the efficacy of and unpack the mechanisms underlying “nature prescriptions” from physicians for people at high risk for a range of conditions including postpartum depression. Her work is highly innovative and has great potential to address racial disparities in health and health care.

5. What’s the biggest barrier to getting things done in your line of work?

Status quo bias.

6. Imagine you win an award for impacting healthcare. What did you do?

I helped end HIV transmission in South Africa.

7. What advice would you give innovators in healthcare?

Learn the tools and frameworks of innovation as a discipline. Innovation is not just about doing something new, or doing something with an app. Training in product design and user experience is gold!

About Alison Buttenheim

Alison M. Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, is a public health researcher and behavioral epidemiologist who combines her interest in behavioral economics with a focus on improving child health on a global level. She has designed and evaluated interventions to improve parental and family decision-making across a broad range of topics, including food access in low-income neighborhoods, childhood obesity, vaccine hesitancy, smoking cessation, reproductive health, cancer prevention and large-scale vector control programs.Dr. Buttenheim’s research focuses on how health behavior decisions are made within households and how socioeconomic and cultural conditions shape those decisions. Her work is designed to provide new insights to help parents make better choices for their children, and to improve take-up of evidence-based preventive services.

An evaluation expert, Dr. Buttenheim has published or consulted on several international evaluations, including school feeding schemes in Laos, household sanitation in Bangladesh, national family planning strategies in Niger and Jordan, and global tobacco surveillance strategies.

Dr. Buttenheim is Patricia Bleznak Silverstein and the Howard A. Silverstein Term Endowed Professorship in Global Women’s Health, Assistant Professor of Health Policy in the Perelman School of Medicine, Senior Fellow of the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, Associate Director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE), and Associate Director of the National Clinician Scholars Program.

She graduated magna cum laude from Yale University with a BA in History, earned an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a PhD in Public Health from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she majored in Community Health Sciences and minored in Sociology / Demography. She also completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the Office of Population Research at Princeton University and was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholar at Penn.


Written by: Aline Holzwarth