Hispanic drug abuse research institute attracts up-and-coming scholars
A select group of scholars from across the country gathered recently at the USC School of Social Work to participate in an intensive summer training institute focused on issues surrounding substance abuse among Hispanic populations.
The 10-day program, sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and known as the Interdisciplinary Research Training Institute on Hispanic Drug Abuse, is designed to support and advance the careers of graduate students and new investigators interested in pursuing drug abuse research.
“We all know that there’s a lack of prevention, intervention and treatment for Hispanic populations,” said Avelardo Valdez, a USC School of Social Work professor who oversees the training institute. “The overall objective is to alleviate health disparities among minorities. We believe this program is contributing to narrowing that gap.”
Established more than a decade ago by the National Hispanic Science Network, the fellowship program involves comprehensive workshops on topics ranging from cultural issues and complex behaviors surrounding drug use to advice on how to write a successful federal grant proposal. In addition to participating in the summer institute, fellows receive two years of mentoring from top researchers and are invited to attend various networking events.
Participants tend to be predoctoral or postdoctoral students and assistant professors looking to gain a foothold in this highly competitive research field. During the past decade, Valdez said approximately 120 to 130 fellows have advanced through the program. Many have become successful researchers who receive federal funding and work in some of the top universities in the country.
“We’re monitored very closely by the NIDA, and we’ve had very good outcomes over the years,” he said. “It’s really been a success and has created a community of scholars that may not have existed earlier. It creates a certain synergy among the fellows and the faculty who come here as well.”
For Martha Zapata Roblyer, a third-year doctoral student at Oklahoma State University, the program has exceeded her expectations. The Colombia native is interested in the effects of acculturation on substance use and behavioral problems among Latino youth in the United States.
“This is going to change my professional life in the sense that it’s giving me access to top-level researchers from around the world,” she said. “Particularly coming from a developing country, I never had an opportunity or access to this level of scholarship and mentorship — people who really want to help me succeed.”
Zapata Roblyer said that type of support and interaction is rare in academia due to the field’s competitive nature. Grant funding is limited, and successful researchers are reluctant to share their secrets or strategies. But she said those taking part in the training institute have been open, generous and very helpful.
“You can tell they are really invested in our success,” she said. “Our success is their success.”
Fatima Muñoz was similarly impressed with the level of camaraderie and effort to cultivate relationships within the institute. Rather than focusing solely on the technical aspects of research, she said organizers and faculty mentors took time to connect with her and her colleagues.
“They really share with you all that they know, and take your hand and guide you,” she said. “I feel like I’m not alone.”
A postdoctoral fellow in the Division of Global Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, Muñoz is interested in stigma related to injection drug use along the border of San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Her work as a physician in Tijuana inspired her to pursue research related to drug use behaviors and corresponding health risks.
“On the U.S. side, a lot of work is already being done,” she said. “On the other side, we need to improve, learn, gain more experience and conduct more research. This is part of my professional responsibility.”
Though she has worked with clients struggling with substance use, Muñoz said the training program has expanded her understanding of the biomedical aspects of substance abuse, as well as the research process in general.
The summer institute has also expanded the perspective of Meghan Althoff, a predoctoral student at Tulane University, who plans to pursue a research career on the health impacts of substance abuse among Latinos.
“I’ve been very impressed with the spectrum we’ve worked through,” she said. “We’ve done everything from learning more about the basic science with respect to addiction, especially in Latino populations, to how we define acculturation and how we examine some of the cultural factors that are relevant to studying drug abuse in this population.”
Althoff had been interested in studying infectious diseases in Latino populations, but she shifted her focus somewhat after working with researchers on NIDA-funded projects.
“I started seeing the intersection between substance use and HIV and sexually transmitted infections,” she said, adding that the summer institute has given her a wider sociological viewpoint. “It’s helped me figure out what I need to pay attention to more and that I need to give more credence to the qualitative aspects of research.”
Addressing substance use issues among minority populations is increasingly important for the Los Angeles region, said Mark Todd, the university’s associate vice provost for academic affairs.
During his welcoming remarks to the institute participants, he said it is fitting that the summer program is located at USC, noting that the 2010 Census found that 48.5 percent of people in Los Angeles are of Hispanic or Latino origin.
“In an ideal world, drug abuse research would be totally unnecessary, and you’d have to find something else to do, but it’s not an ideal world and your expertise is desperately needed,” Todd said. “As you know, drug abuse affects all communities, but ethnic minority groups like Hispanics are disproportionally impacted, and, unfortunately, few training opportunities like this exist.”
Valdez said he is encouraged by the level of support from the School of Social Work and the university for both the training institute and research related to social disparities among minority groups in general.
“One of the things I consistently hear from the administration as a whole is that they recognize this is a Latino city,” he said. “USC is making a commitment to address issues related to Hispanics and minority populations, particularly in the surrounding community.”
Valdez recently joined the school, along with several colleagues from the University of Houston, where the summer institute had been previously located. He said the training program still has several years left on a five-year grant, and he plans to reapply for federal funding once the cycle is completed.
“It gives a higher profile to USC, it brings in some very prestigious scholars and we think it contributes to USC’s overall goal of becoming one of the leading research institutions in the country,” he said.