After three decades on the East Coast, Hortensia Amaro has come home.
Having grown up in Los Angeles after emigrating from Cuba during the height of the Cold War, Amaro, who spent much of the last 30 years in Boston improving public health, has returned to the place where she said her roots are in the United States.
“Los Angeles shaped me and informed my work,” said Amaro, who grew up in a low-income household on the Westside. To give back to her community, she tutored children in local schools while attending the University of California, Los Angeles, where she also helped to establish a bilingual and bicultural preschool not far from USC.
And after making substantial strides in Boston — where her work in racial and ethnic health disparities, HIV prevention and substance abuse treatment led to a building named in her honor — the city of Los Angeles is welcoming Amaro back with open arms as USC’s first associate vice provost of community research initiatives and the Dean’s Professor of Social Work and Preventive Medicine at the USC School of Social Work.
“My work has been at the intersection of research and practice, and translating research into informed practice is what USC and the School of Social Work focus on,” she said. “And with USC’s long-standing involvement in civic and community engagement, coming back to Los Angeles, with its rich diversity, has been a perfect combination.”
What’s more, Amaro will receive the Ernest R. Hilgard Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association’s Society for General Psychology at the association’s annual meeting in August.
“She has been an inspiring leader whose contributions have challenged boundaries and have contributed to unifying psychology across specialty areas and disciplines in multiple ways,” according to the award announcement.
“By engaging closely with social challenges of interest both on an intellectual and personal level, Dr. Amaro has improved the lives of countless individuals through direct application of her consequential scholarship and research,” said Beth Garrett, USC provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. “USC’s long-standing commitment to community service is enhanced by Dr. Amaro’s leadership, and we are delighted that she will be recognized with the prestigious Hilgard Lifetime Achievement Award.”
Through decades of research as well as personal experience, Amaro has successfully combined different areas of the social sciences, including public health, psychology and social work, into a career now focused on social determinants.
As an immigrant who spoke little English and grew up in a housing project, Amaro had to overcome a lot to be where she is today. But she would readily admit that she had it easy compared to her Mexican- and African-American classmates. The color of her skin was lighter than that of the other Spanish-speaking children, and her status as a political refugee fleeing communism also helped. She was allowed to retake her IQ test — the first time she did not fare well because of the language barrier — which landed her a place on the college-prep track, a life-changing event within the de facto segregated classrooms in Los Angeles at that time.
Her own lived experiences as a minority in the United States, coupled with a commitment to research that improved lives, led Amaro to devote this new phase of her career to place-based research and practice. She is considered a pioneer in applying research to practice and in the development of individual interventions for disenfranchised populations. Her research and services programs have led to real-world results that have touched the lives of many, a hallmark of her career.
“My career has been fueled by a passion for translational research that bridges the gap between science and practice in public health and behavioral health,” she said. “This often led me to pursue approaches that at the time were not conventional for academics as I blended community-based program development and research.”
Her groundbreaking research on drug addiction, mental illness and post-traumatic stress disorder provided strong evidence that found women receiving integrated treatment for these co-occurring conditions stayed in treatment longer; had lower rates of post-treatment drug use, mental health symptoms and trauma symptoms; and had lower rates of HIV-risk behaviors. The treatment model is now part of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-Based Programs and Practices.
“I learned that patients who had made significant strides in our treatment interventions were challenged to remain drug-free because of low opportunity and toxic conditions in the communities where they lived,” Amaro said. “The last 10 to 15 years of research show that environments where people live, work and play matter, that social determinants of health have powerful systemic impacts.”
Amaro will use the lens of social determination to inform her work at USC. Along with the Office of the Provost and University Relations, Amaro is currently developing a program to bring together faculty to facilitate cross-disciplinary place-based research efforts. As a first step, the project, in collaboration with the nonprofit Advancement Project, will conduct a needs and opportunities assessment of the communities surrounding the University Park and Health Sciences campuses to better inform the university’s community programs and research initiatives.
“My vision for USC is to develop community and research programs that not only provide opportunities for individuals, but more importantly, help to shift the population curve in the direction of improved community conditions and overall health. This will require an informed, concerted, strategic and sustained effort on behalf of the university,” Amaro said. “USC could be a model of how universities can positively impact surrounding communities.”
Before joining USC last year, Amaro was with Northeastern University in Boston for 10 years, serving as dean and Distinguished Professor of Health Sciences and Counseling Psychology at the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, and as founder and director of the university’s Institute on Urban Health Research. She also was a professor in the Boston University School of Public Health and the Department of Pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine for 18 years. Amaro also served for 14 years as vice chair of the Boston Public Health Commission, the city’s department of health.
During her time in Boston, Amaro founded two community-based organizations and five substance abuse treatment programs for women by forging vital connections between public health research and practice. She has made strides in ameliorating alcohol and drug use among adolescents and adults; creating behavioral interventions for HIV/AIDS prevention, including innovative HIV-prevention models targeted to Latina and African-American women; and establishing substance abuse and mental health treatment for Latina and African-American women and incarcerated men.
Amaro, who has authored 136 scholarly publications, serves as associate editor of the journal American Psychologist and has served on the editorial boards of the American Journal of Public Health and other leading publications. She has also participated in review and advisory committees for the Institute of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, her contributions to public health resulted in her election to the prestigious Institute of Medicine.