Kelly Rulison, Ph.D.

Promoting Health, Engaging Communities, Changing Lives

Kelly Rulison, Ph.D.


Education and Training

My interdisciplinary training includes:

  • An undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Rochester
  • A master’s and doctoral degree in Human Development and Family Studies from The Pennsylvania State University
  • A master’s degree in applied statistics from The Pennsylvania State University
  • A two-year pre-doctoral research fellowship as part of Penn State University’s Prevention and Methodology Training program .

Curriculum Vitae

Research Interests

Broadly, my research focuses on the dynamic social processes and contexts that shape the development of health-risk behaviors during adolescence. Notably, rates of drug use and delinquency rapidly increase during adolescence. At the same time, adolescents spend increasingly more time with their peers in unsupervised settings and the nature of these peer relationships changes. These simultaneous changes in behavior and the peer context, however, are not conclusive evidence of a strong causal link between peers and health-risk behaviors. Before we can develop effective, and ideally optimized, interventions that can reduce the prevalence of health-risk behaviors as well as strengthen developmental assets, we must first identify the different mechanisms through which peers impact these behaviors. In addition, we must utilize methods that can capture the interdependent factors that shape health-risk behaviors over time and across different contexts (at school, at home, in after-school activities, and in the neighborhood).

In response to these challenges, my research centers around three inter-related themes. These three themes, which draw on my training in human development, statistical methodology, and prevention science, are: (1) clarifying the role that peers play in the development of health-risk behaviors; (2) applying innovative methods to study how different levels of the peer context interact to shape the development of health-risk behaviors; and (3) exploring how we can optimize interventions to better promote the diffusion of healthy attitudes and behaviors and reduce the diffusion of health-risk behaviors.

II have translated these themes into questions such as:

  • What social processes underlie deviant peer influence and how do they unfold over time? (Development of Health-Risk Behaviors)
  • How can statistical innovations in social network analysis, multilevel modeling, and latent variable modeling be refined to capture the interplay between peer networks and health-risk behavior? (Innovative Methods)
  • To what extent can peer networks promote the diffusion of effects from universal family-based interventions and what models can capture these effects? (Innovative Methods and Intervention Research)
  • How can interventions be optimized to maximize their public health impact? (Innovative Methods and Intervention Research).

Current Studies

Principal Investigator: Wayne Osgood (Penn State University)
Agency: National Institute for Drug Abuse, WT Grant Foundation
Aim: This project explores whether family- and school-based interventions had setting level effects on substance use through their impact on school friendship networks. This project includes friendship and substance use data from over 11,000 youth over five waves between 6th and 9th grade. Within the larger project, I am exploring how social networks promote the diffusion of effects from the family-based intervention to non-participants.

Drug and Alcohol Prevention for Student Athletes (2011-2014)
Principal Investigators: Melodie Fearnow-Kenney, David Wyrick (Public Health Education)
Agency: National Institute for Drug Abuse
Aim: To move prevention science forward, we must move beyond questions of whether or not an intervention is effective and begin asking questions about whether the public health impact of the intervention has been optimized. The purpose of this study is to optimize a substance use prevention program (myPlaybook) that targets college student athletes. This project entails completing several different rounds of “component selection experiments” in which we evaluate the effectiveness of each program component and then revise any of the non-effective components.

Courses Taught

  • HEA 325 Public Health Data Analysis
  • HEA 604 Public Health Statistics
  • HEA 752 Quantitative Methods in Public Health

Links of Interests

Research Gate
HHS Office of Research

Honors and Awards

Mary Frances Stone Teaching Award (2013)
Harold F. Martin Graduate Assistant Outstanding Teaching Award (2009)
Joachim Wohlwill Endowment in Human Development and Family Studies (2007)


School Heath Advisory Committee Member (Guilford County Schools)
Youth Risk Behavior Survey (2011-2012)