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A new advocate for the USC community

by Robin Heffler
In her new role, Hortensia Amaro hopes to enhance quantitative assessment of community needs. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)
Photo: In her new role, Hortensia Amaro hopes to enhance quantitative assessment of community needs. (Photo/Dietmar Quistorf)

After nearly 30 years of making major contributions to public health research and practice in Boston, Hortensia Amaro has entered a new phase in her career. She recently returned to Los Angeles, her former home, as USC’s first associate vice provost for community research initiatives.

“USC has a long history of engagement with the community and a perspective that its welfare and the community’s are intertwined,” said Amaro, who has a dual appointment as dean’s professor of social work and preventive medicine. “It’s an environment where together with the faculty and administration, we can help find new solutions and inform policies to improve conditions and well-being in the largely Latino and African-American communities surrounding the university.”

In her new role, Amaro will develop USC’s capacity to conduct interdisciplinary, community-based scholarship. This includes research “that can improve the underlying conditions leading to health disparities and limiting life conditions in poor neighborhoods, stemming from lack of economic opportunity, suboptimal education quality and barriers to quality medical care, as well as the effects of violence,” she said.

Through these efforts, Amaro hopes to enhance quantitative assessment of community needs, promote use of evidence-based strategies and track program investments.

Amaro’s personal history has fueled her interest in public health. As a child, she immigrated to Miami when her parents sought more freedom than post-revolutionary Cuba offered. Within six months, they moved to Los Angeles, where the family lived in public housing, and she excelled in school.

Along the way, experiences with discrimination as an immigrant Latina helped to shape her interest in how individuals and families adapted to and functioned under difficult conditions, as well as a desire to improve their lives. So, Amaro dove into psychology, research and community work.

Her studies on clinical strategies for treating women with co-occurring drug addiction, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder have provided strong evidence supporting integrated treatment for these conditions.

Amaro has received numerous awards and commendations for her long history of translating research into practice, including developing a number of evidence-based treatment programs for substance abuse and HIV prevention. One example is the Boston Consortium Model, which integrates the treatment of addiction, mental health disorders and trauma in women. Her research found that this model was more effective than traditional substance abuse programs, leading to its listing in the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

She was also elected to the Institute of Medicine and has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association.

“To me, engaged scholarship is by definition responsive to the needs of a community,” Amaro said. “It means that you are in a dialogue in which you’re listening and learning, sharing and developing solutions in partnership with the community.”

Teresa Lara contributed to this story.

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