By Rebecca Burton
Davian Thompson was a recovering drug addict at the mere age of 12. Having grown up on a rural Native American reservation in Mississippi, Thompson said violence, drugs and alcohol abuse were not uncommon sights.
Thompson knew he wanted to make a difference in underprivileged populations like his own. To gain a sense of professionalism while working with communities facing health disparities, Thompson applied to the Summer Research with NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) for Underrepresented Students program.
When Thompson left his reservation for the first time and arrived in Gainesville at the beginning of the summer he said he experienced a “complete culture shock.”
“Before I came here I really didn’t have that much. I really didn’t know how to be a professional,” said Thompson, a student at the University of New Mexico pursuing a degree in psychology.
The program started in 1997 and is a nationwide annual internship program that brings students who are minorities together to participate in studies about drug and alcohol abuse with researchers at top universities. Any researcher receiving grants from NIDA is encouraged to participate. During their eight-to-10-week stay, summer scholars work side by side with the scientists, learning the fundamentals of academic research. So far, more than 750 students from around the country have participated in the program.
Linda B. Cottler, Ph.D., M.P.H., a NIDA-funded investigator and chair of the department of epidemiology in the UF colleges of Public Health and Health Professions and Medicine, has been involved with the summer program for nine years.
“I think it gives the scholars a whole new approach to life and what they might want to do with a research background,” said Cottler, PHHP’s associate dean for research and planning.
This year Thompson and Lupe Guel, a Mexican-American student at the University of Washington, were mentored by Abigail Zulich. Zulich is a former summer scholar who now works for HealthStreet, a program Cottler started to help eliminate health disparities in Alachua County.
PHHP’s department of clinical health and psychology also participated in the summer program. Ashlyn Newcomb, a Native American student at Oklahoma State University, was mentored by Nicole Whitehead, Ph.D., an associate professor in the department.
On Aug. 1, the three students gathered in the Clinical and Translational Research Building to share their findings, showing off their newly acquired skills of data collection and analysis, research writing and public speaking.
“I wanted to get more into research dealing with American Indian abuse and how it affects mental disorders,” Newcomb said at the start of her final presentation. “I want to work with adolescents and trauma.”
Newcomb ran different sets of data to see how the risk of sexual and physical violence in a reservation setting compares to those in a more affluent community. Her findings showed that residents of a Native American reservation are three times more likely to suffer depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs and four times more likely to contemplate suicide.
Her overall findings showed that, altogether, 14.2 percent of Native Americans have experienced trauma, compared to 4.7 percent of whites. She said the data proved that there is a need for research in that area.
“I wanted to look at the level of exposure to reservation life and the community,” Newcomb said. “It could be very different for someone living on the reservation to someone who’s not.”
Thompson and Guel took a different route for their research. In addition to learning to write and collect data, they also traveled the streets of Gainesville, working directly with residents who have low-income and with people who abuse drugs. They helped with interviews and matching residents to community health resources at HealthStreet. Some days they would greet people at the front desk, and other days they made follow-up phone calls to clients.
“I gained an overall better understanding of working with substance abuse, discovering research to help clients out, and just pretty much interacting with them,” Guel said. “Having this knowledge will benefit me when I want to help out the youth.”
Thompson said during his time at HealthStreet, he realized health problems aren’t only severe in the reservation setting.
“When I came here I really didn’t know how severe health disparities were in the Jacksonville and Gainesville areas,” Thompson said. “I always thought reservations were more severe than any other areas.”
Thompson said that he wants to be a substance abuse counselor and is thankful he now has experiences working with other populations outside of reservations.
Corrine Ruktanonchai, M.P.H., a research statistician in the department of epidemiology and one of the mentors of the program, said her job was to see that the interns left the program as well-rounded individuals.
“They got their hands in a lot of different pots and they had a wide variety of experiences,” Ruktanonchai said.