Rising Star Award: Natasha Crooks, College of Nursing 

A woman sits at her desk
Natasha Crooks. (Photo: Martin Hernandez/UIC)

By the time she was in college, Natasha Crooks knew she wanted to be a nurse at Planned Parenthood. She was eager to offer comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care to young women, particularly those of color like herself. 

But when she was a year into nursing school in Wisconsin, her career trajectory changed. 

As one of the few students of color, she was upset by the microaggressions she encountered. Crooks started interviewing other students of color to learn about their experiences and presented her findings on how to improve the culture to the school’s leadership. Her mentor pulled her aside and pointed out that she was doing research and encouraged Crooks to apply for an early entrance PhD program, which would allow her to take graduate courses while she was still an undergraduate, to prepare for a career as a nurse researcher.  

“It was kind of against all odds that I went down this path,” Crooks said. But she realized she loved communicating with and advocating for patients more than the health care parts of nursing. “I went with my strengths.” 

Crooks, now an assistant professor in UIC’s College of Nursing, has carried her initial nursing interests into her research by focusing on how to protect Black girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health.  

She was recently awarded a $4 million grant from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities for a project to reduce sexually transmitted infections and HIV among Black girls by engaging their Black male caregivers in in helping the girls avoid STIs. She’s hoping to enroll about 300 14- to 18-year-old girls and their male caregivers — including dads, mentors, grandfathers or cousins — in the study. 

This work grew out of an earlier project where she adapted a two-day workshop on HIV prevention for Black girls and their female caregivers to one for male caregivers. In the workshop, participants learn about female sexual health, role play effective communication and strengthen family relationships. 

Crooks said it is extremely gratifying to hear from the girls or their male caregivers after the program, who tell her they’re still using the tools they learned. “They’re able to communicate a little better, and it improves their relationship,” she said. 

She said she is grateful to UIC for giving her time for community-engaged research in her first two years here, and the Rising Star Award feels like recognition of that work. “The university sees the value of the community work that I’m doing and how it extends beyond UIC,” Crooks said. 

In addition to her work in the community, Crooks also advocates for women of color in academia. She is particularly proud of having created a group of Black women researchers and graduate students across the health sciences who meet to discuss projects, publications and career goals. They call themselves the Black Girl Development Research Group and meet weekly for activities such as practicing presentations or outlining research papers. 

“It’s a support system to help them successfully navigate the sciences as a Black woman,” she said. 

Read about other recipients of the 2023 Researcher, Scholar and Inventor of the Year awards this week on UIC today, with new profiles posted each day. On April 22, you’ll find coverage on UIC today from the awards ceremony. 


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