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Summer institute draws top scholars on Hispanic drug abuse

by Eric Lindberg
Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, speaks at the Interdisciplinary Research Training Institute on Hispanic Drug Abuse. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)
Photo: Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, speaks at the Interdisciplinary Research Training Institute on Hispanic Drug Abuse. (USC Photo/Eric Lindberg)

A group of carefully selected scholars gathered recently at the USC School of Social Work to participate in a summer institute designed to promote their careers and strengthen their ability to tackle the critical issue of substance abuse among vulnerable Hispanic populations.

Chosen from a highly competitive pool of candidates from throughout the United States and Latin America, the fellows spent 11 days engaged in intensive workshops on social and biomedical research related to Hispanic drug abuse, writing successful grant applications and connecting with other leading researchers.

“We all know that to deal with the difficult but solvable problem of drug abuse in our minority communities, in the Latino community, we have to rely more on results, and we have to move toward evidence-based scholarship and policy,” Elizabeth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said during her welcoming remarks to the fellows. “I know the training you are going to receive over the next few days will provide you with a solid foundation for producing results and helping policymakers produce results, and for learning about ways to approach the drug problem and then translating those approaches into real solutions.”

Since 2002, more than 124 fellows have participated in the Interdisciplinary Research Training Institute on Hispanic Drug Abuse (IRTI), which features a series of workshops on social, behavioral and biomedical topics ranging from the neuroscience behind drug addiction to how researchers can successfully compete for scarce federal funding resources.

Avelardo Valdez, a USC School of Social Work professor who has led the institute for more than a decade, said fellows are typically a diverse mix of doctoral and postdoctoral students and assistant professors who show significant potential to become successful researchers.

“The overall goal is to promote the careers of new investigators who are interested in drug research on Hispanic populations,” he said. “There is a huge disparity of Hispanic researchers in this area, and we feel that by promoting their careers, we’ll deal with that disparity as well as deal with the overall health disparities among Hispanic populations throughout the country.”

The program features a three-pronged approach focused on training, mentoring and networking. In addition to the summer institute, fellows receive two years of mentoring from top scholars in the field and are encouraged to collaborate with one another and attend relevant conferences, such as an annual gathering hosted by the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse.

Christopher Salas-Wright, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Social Work who is interested in pursuing research on substance use prevention and sexual risk behavior among Hispanic youth in Central America, said he has appreciated the practical support on grant writing and developing a study design.

“For me, equally important has been the chance to network and share with other young scholars who are starting out their careers, to meet all the people who are coming in to give presentations and pick their brains and share with them, and just to have time with Dr. Valdez and the team here,” he said. “I’m already talking with some people about publications we’re planning to put together. It’s a nice way to collaborate, and I certainly hope the networking will continue.”

The mentoring and networking aspect also appealed to Argentina Servin, a fellow who trained in preventive medicine, infectious disease and clinical epidemiology while receiving a medical degree from Universidad Xochicalco in Baja, Calif. She is currently completing a master’s degree in public health at the same institution, in addition to pursuing postdoctoral studies at the University of California, San Diego’s Division of Global Public Health.

Though Servin has significant experience working on HIV-related issues with vulnerable populations along the U.S.-Mexico border, including injection drug users and female sex workers, she said having the opportunity to learn more about the research process during the summer institute was very helpful.

“I didn’t go through a PhD program, so sometimes I feel that I lack in certain areas,” she said. “Having this additional mentorship is definitely of great use and highly appreciated when you are coming from a clinical background and transitioning into research. It’s not that farfetched to think that you could work with any of the mentors you see here and become colleagues.”

Promoting that kind of collaborative scholarship is a key component of the institute, Valdez said, and one of the reasons for its ongoing success. He said top officials at the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which funds IRTI, have praised it as a model training program for young investigators.

Valdez and his research team are applying for an additional five years of funding to continue leading the training institute, and he said it is critical that the fellows maintain that high level of success, particularly in measurable outcomes such as publications, conference presentations and funding proposal submissions to the National Institutes of Health.

“We have a very high-quality group of fellows this year,” he said. “I have had several comments from the faculty on the quality of our fellows this year, so I’m really happy with them, and we have high expectations.”