What stage are you in your career? What is your affiliation?
I am currently a 5th year doctoral candidate in the Clinical Science program at the University of Southern California and a National Science Foundation predoctoral fellow.
How would you describe your research interests?
My research interests include investigating the etiology and underlying mechanisms of substance use disorders among underserved populations and the development of novel, culturally-tailored evidence-based treatment programs to effectively treat substance use and mental disorders in disadvantaged, minority groups. I am also particularly interested in examining prescription drug misuse, cultural factors, as well as racial/ethnic-, socioeconomic-, mental health-, and gender-related health disparities across the substance use trajectory (i.e., initiation, escalation/progression, maintenance, and cessation/relapse).
How did you become interested in addictive behaviors and health disparities research?
My passion for pursuing a career in addictive behaviors and health disparities research began when I was initially exposed to the stigmatization of individuals suffering from addiction and mental health problems within my Filipino community. I witnessed growing up how mental disorders and addiction are often considered taboo and “contagious afflictions” in my culture. Throughout my career, I became more motivated to better understand why addictive behaviors were not well-understood or openly acknowledged in my culture and why specific minority populations were disproportionately at risk for substance use and mental health problems relative to other groups.
During my undergraduate career, I became the Founder and President of Healing Highlanders at UC Riverside, which was dedicated to providing students in recovery from addictive behaviors with emotional support and a wide range of campus and community services. It was through my mentorship interactions with students in recovery that engendered my scientific interests in addictive behaviors and health disparities research among diverse, substance-using populations, in hopes that findings from this research would make broader societal impacts on those in recovery and surrounding underserved communities. My research interests continue to grow as a graduate student at the USC Health, Emotion, & Addiction Laboratory, where I currently examine the impact of sociocultural and psychobiological determinants of health disparities and addictive behaviors in minority populations.
Congrats on your recent work published in Addiction, titled “Association of Frequency of Perceived Exposure to Discrimination with Tobacco Withdrawal Symptoms and Smoking Lapse Behavior in African Americans!” What are the key takeaways from this work that are important for Division 50 members to know? What are the implications of this work for improving health equity and social justice?
Thank you so much, I’m very proud of this paper and I’m so grateful to my advisor and collaborators for providing me guidance throughout the entire process! The three main takeaways from this work that may be important to Division 50 members are that:
1) Sociocultural stressors, such as the frequency of perceived exposure to day-to-day experiences of interpersonal discrimination in one’s daily life, may increase risk of experiencing specific tobacco withdrawal symptoms (i.e., urges to smoke, negative mood, cognitive functioning) during smoking abstinence, particularly for minority groups such as African American smokers.
2) Tailoring smoking cessation interventions to include assessment of sociocultural stressors may benefit clinicians and inform treatment of tobacco withdrawal, especially among African American smokers reporting higher rates of experiencing discrimination.
3) Future work may provide a scientific agenda for health equity promotion in vulnerable smokers by exploring both individual-level factors (i.e., psychological symptoms, tobacco addiction) AND sociocultural determinants (i.e., discrimination) that contribute to pervasive disparities facing African Americans who smoke and experience frequent discrimination.
Given recent racial injustices and tragedies such as the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others in the United States, I believe it is increasingly important that we, as future scientists, researchers, professors, mentors, clinicians, and policy makers, address and engage with these issues through conducting more research focusing on sociocultural determinants of health and by also educating ourselves to become better allies for BIPOC communities and our BIPOC colleagues in academia.
How do you see your research interests evolving in the future?
As I am currently applying to internships and thinking of potential post-doctoral fellowships, I would love the opportunity to obtain training and research experience in the development of interventions for addictive behaviors in disadvantaged populations, particularly adolescents and adults of racial/ethnic and low socioeconomic backgrounds. It is my hope that by getting this additional training that my research can inform the development of culturally-adapted evidence-based interventions for minority groups struggling with addiction.
What would you like to share with someone just starting out in the field of addictive behaviors and health disparities research?
I highly recommend for anyone starting out in the field of addictive behaviors and health disparities research to find a mentor who is deeply invested in both your professional and personal growth, especially if you are coming from an underrepresented background. As a first-generation college student, I had initially struggled in academia as I found it difficult to find faculty research mentors who were available and willing to advise me on how to effectively prepare for a career in research. I was fortunate to meet my current advisor, Dr. Adam Leventhal, as he challenged me to think critically about the field of addiction science, while also providing me with an abundance of opportunities for scholarship and networking. His enthusiastic and supportive demeanor paired with his fervor and strong commitment to science and the field enabled me to thrive and feel immensely supported throughout graduate school, despite the many challenges that I faced as a first-generation scholar while adjusting to my Ph.D. program. I cannot emphasize enough how life-changing it is to have a mentor who serves as both your advisor and advocate in the field!
Bello, M. S., Liautaud, M. M., De La Cerda, J. T., Pang, R. D., Ray, L. A., Ahluwalia, J. A., & Leventhal, A. M. (in press). Association of frequency of perceived exposure to discrimination with tobacco withdrawal symptoms and smoking lapse behavior in African Americans. Addiction.
In this column, we are looking to highlight recently published work or accomplishments by members from backgrounds that are underrepresented in psychological science. We are also interested in promoting research focusing on improving health equity and social justice in historically disadvantaged groups. Send us a link and description of your current projects, awards, or media attention you have received, and any other information that you would like to share with our readers. If you are discussing research focused on improving health equity and social justice, you can also provide additional information about the implications of your research. Please limit responses to 500 words and send to firstname.lastname@example.org by February 1, 2021.