Dr. Lailea Noel taps the Venn diagram she’s drawn on the white board, trying to describe the focus of her work and to “get a feel for what I’m about.” At the center of the three orange circles lies the intersection of mental health, cancer care services, and social determinants of health. Dr. Noel argues that you cannot separate these three things: “You can’t pull them apart. If there’s more presence of mental health stressors and inequity in social determinants of health, there will be a decrease in timely access to cancer care services.” It’s all connected.

Dr. Noel is continuing her work in that intersection into 2022. She has been elected to the Board of Directors at the Association of Oncology Social Workers (AOSW) as the first full-term Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Her term in this role will begin in January and will span 2022-2025. Dr. Noel is the first individual to be elected to this position.

The Association of Oncology Social Work was founded in 1984. It is the world’s largest professional organization that is entirely dedicated to the psychosocial care of people affected by cancer.

Dr. Noel has been a member of AOSW since 2012 and has presented her research at the AOSW annual conference. In the past, she has served on the research committee, the membership committee and the DEI committee. When she was asked to run for the DEI board position, she welcomed the opportunity to serve the field in this capacity. “Our organization seeks to be a resource for oncology social workers across the US. Yet a large majority of our membership is white and female. I’d like to find out why we aren’t reaching oncology social workers from minoritized populations, whether that’s people of color or LGBTQ+ communities. I know they are out there and it is our task to find out what the barriers are to connecting them with the valuable resources of the AOSW.”

Dr. Noel knows that a lack of diversity in spaces like the AOSW membership leads to the detriment of both the profession and, more importantly, the people who are being served. “I would love to find other parts of the country that are not being tapped into, such as rural oncology social workers or oncology social workers that are working in urban environments with sizable minoritized populations.”

Dr. Noel came to The University of Texas at Austin as the 2018-19 Donald D. Harrington Visiting Faculty Fellow. She has served as an Assistant Professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work for the past 2 years. At the UT Dell Medical School, she holds courtesy faculty appointments in the Department of Oncology and the Department of Health Social Work, she co-chairs the Health Equity in Research Workgroup and serves on the Livestrong Cancer Institutes’ Clinical and Prevention Research Workgroup. Dr. Noel has an extensive practice background in health administration in the field of oncology and non-profit management. Her research interests seek to connect communities most impacted by cancer disparities with cancer care services by exploring patient-provider communication effects on psychosocial barriers to care.

Dr. Noel’s research, work, and passion are all marked by community engagement and advocacy. Her eyes shining with excitement, she explains, “Maybe I can be a voice for people who don’t otherwise have a voice on the [AOSW] board. That’s the one thing that summarizes me in general as a professional. I try, whether it’s in my research or my teaching or my publications or my service, to be a voice for people who don’t otherwise have a voice at our tables—in academia, at the hospital, when I interview African American breast cancer survivors in rural communities. My whole point is to try to give them a voice.”