Foster PhD Alumni Spotlight: Chethana Achar, PhD ’19

Collectively, the marketing department at Foster has shaped the future of the field of marketing by training the next generation of top scholars. Recent job placements include Kellogg School of Management, Cornell Tech, and University of Miami, and Indiana University. The quality of job placements reflect the training that prepares UW Foster graduates to push boundaries of knowledge and thrive as valued members of learning communities.

Students in the Foster PhD program get early mentorship from leading scholars in the field. In addition to personalized guidance from a faculty mentor, Foster students have access to leaders in related disciplines such as UW’s prestigious computer science and psychology programs. Rigorous coursework and a supportive learning environment serve as a foundation from which students can launch productive careers.

Today’s spotlight is on Chethana Achar, PhD ’19, now an assistant professor at Kellogg.

Tell us about your research.

I study social stigma and how it shapes consumer behavior, with a focus on public health marketing. My past work has looked at how stigmatization of health issues (such as mental health, STDs) and risky behaviors (such as smoking, being overweight) shapes consumers’ likelihood for seeking healthcare support for mental health issues, vaccinations, illness screenings, etc. In conjunction with stigma, I also studied the downstream consequences of consumers’ perceptions of morality, that is, what they believe to be “good” and “bad”. My research investigates a broad spectrum of beliefs about morality, including the strength of moral beliefs and variance in what people perceive to be moral and not moral. I use multi-methodological approach in my research including experiments, field studies, and big data analyses.

How did you get interested in this research topic?

Although many experiences and observations contribute to my interest in studying social stigma and morality, I can credit one event with directly shaping my research. Very early in the doctoral program, I visited my OBGYN for an annual regular checkup. I grew up in the 90s and early aughts, when teenagers were not routinely vaccinated for HPV, as it is fairly common now. I mentioned this to my doctor – she even had pamphlets in her office saying how women in their 20s were at high risk for HPV and therefore cancer – and asked if I could be vaccinated for it since I was insured. My doctor said (paraphrasing) “… well, if you’re married and are planning to be faithful, you don’t need it.” Because she framed it that way, well, I didn’t get the vaccine that day. Later, I thought a lot about this incident and how what should be a purely medical risk information-based decision (i.e., vaccinating) was turned into a moral decision (i.e., am I a “faithful” person? am I a “good” person?), because of the stigma of the risk factor (i.e., sexual transmission). This sowed the seeds of idea about my dissertation research, which has now developed into a stream of work on how socio-cultural aspects such as morality and stigma play a role in what should be rational, clinical decision-making.

How did the PhD program at UW Foster prepare you for success?

The PhD program at UW provided me with a great mentor, Professor Nidhi Agrawal, who has been my champion and friend to this day. The program always made resources available for travel and presentations, which provided wonderful access to the scientific community at large. I was supported in such a way that I could spend most of my time doing research that I found to be meaningful, rather than act as someone’s research assistant. I was encouraged to work independently, which I now realize, is recognizable and a great asset.

What was your favorite moment in the PhD program?

My favorite “series” of moments from the PhD program are the annual Lake Washington-Union cruises during the spring marketing camp. This was one time every year when I spent high-quality time with other PhD friends, faculty members in the unbeatable ambience of the Pacific Northwest!