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ECP Student Spotlight

SoAP Box: 
Early Career Psychologist Spotlight

Fall 2020

Samuel Acuff, MS

My primary career goal is to work as a federally-funded addiction researcher in an academic setting. Research was not always my clear objective; as an undergraduate, I was clinically focused, and I frankly abhorred the idea of research. During my sophomore year, I took a research methods course with a notoriously inauspicious professor at my institution. At this time in his tenure, he had instituted a laissez faire attendance policy, in which you could skip as many class periods as you’d like, as long as you recorded them and turned them in at the end of the semester. Given my inclination toward efficiency (I thought I could learn it on my own), I made liberal use of this policy and turned in 24 dates at the end of the semester. I was shocked when I received a C in the course. At this point, I should mention that, on the days I did attend class, the professor and I did not exactly get along. Perhaps the C was less about my natural abilities, and more about this professor’s personal vendetta against me; or so I thought. This professor taught an elective called Advanced Statistics; being the pseudo-overachiever that I was, I signed up for the class. When I arrived on the first day, the professor informed me, in front of the class, that scoring a B or higher in the previous course was a prerequisite for entry into Advanced Research, and that I had earned a C. I was mortified, embarrassed, angry. I felt that I needed to “get back” at this man, and what I resolved to do was by no means rational. With the long-game in mind, I re-enrolled in the research methods course the following semester; I attended every single class (and stopped arguing), earned an A, re-enrolled in the Advanced Statistics class, and completed my first in-depth research project, which resulted in receiving the departmental outstanding research award. I imagined that I was, somehow, teaching this professor a lesson (how dare you deny me from your class!); yet, this experience forced me to engage with research, literature, and my teacher, in a way that drastically impacted the trajectory of my life, shifting my focus from clinical work to research. In hindsight, my professor claims that this was his plan the whole time. My experience has implications for the free will-determinism debate that will not here be covered.

Well, my fate was sealed. Currently, I work under the mentorship of Dr. Jim Murphy at the University of Memphis where we study behavioral economic models of substance use. Specifically, we are interested in understanding contextual decision making in substance use: how does manipulating a choice context impact a decision to consume drugs? Over the past few years, my research in this area has focused primarily on understanding the complex relationship between the social environment and alcohol use, primarily among college students. I have also secured a F31 from NIAAA to examine electrophysiological correlates of behavioral economic measures of reward.

I have always valued service to my community. My involvement with the division began in 2017 when I was asked to serve on the Trainee Planning Committee for the Collaborative Perspectives on Addiction conference. I have served on this committee since 2017 and had the opportunity to co-lead it in 2019. As I became more involved in the division, I recognized the positive culture of mentorship and networking, community of care and friendship, and real passion for translation, application, and dissemination of research to create a substantive impact on the treatment of addictive behaviors. These qualities are ones I wish to emulate in my own professional life, and, because a good life rule is to surround yourself with what you wish to become, I decided to apply for the student representative position.

Through my time as the student representative, I am committed to increasing opportunities for engagement and professional growth for the students studying addiction psychology. I hope to achieve this end through two primary initiatives. First, we are actively creating opportunities for students to present their work through The Addiction Psychologist podcast. Dr. Noah Emery and I launched the podcast in June with the mission to provide a platform for clinicians, researchers, and policy makers in the field of addiction to highlight relevant work, answer questions, and disseminate information with the goal of enhancing treatment and recovery for the general public. An important sub-aim of our mission focuses specifically on student and early-career researchers. Each month, we interview a professional about topics related to addiction psychology, like harm reduction approaches, online-recovery support services, and collegiate recovery programs. Starting this month, we will also be releasing a monthly student/ECR episode, in which a student talks about their experiences or research in the field of addiction psychology. We will also release two special episodes each year, paralleling the APA and CPA conferences, that include elevator pitches of posters from a handful of student and early-career researchers. Our first poster session special episode was released in August and included ten excellent posters presented by up-and-coming heavy hitters in the field.

My second initiative is a collaboration with Keanan Joyner (who serves as the CPA student chair), the membership committee, and the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee to develop a mentorship framework intended to increase representation of BIPOC scholars in the field of addiction psychology. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the permeation of systematic racism in our basic American institutions, including the academy, became unavoidably clear. Keanan and I saw academics volunteer time and services to Black students or ECRs to help alleviate the structural barriers faced by people of color. Although heartwarming and well-intended, these inchoate commitments will struggle to move the field towards equity because they are locked in time, burdened by power differentials, and were mostly constrained to those already on academic Twitter. Keanan and I wondered if we could formalize this process of mentorship by developing a database of “mentors” and providing a portal for BIPOC “mentees” to submit requests for mentorship to be distributed by a facilitator in much the same way that an editor would distribute a manuscript for review. People understand what it means to receive a review and are willing to do it for free as a part of their academic service. What if a similar culture could be created around mentoring people of color? We reached out to Division 50 and realized that some great minds were already brainstorming ideas. Together, we are in the process of developing an action plan to formalize a scalable, sustainable framework as quickly as possible. During my tenure, I hope that we see not only the development of this framework, but also empirical evidence of the fruits of the labor.

I greatly look forward to serving in this position and continuing to find new ways to facilitate student engagement and enhance our ability to be inclusive and value diversity. If you are a student and have any suggestions, or wish to get more involved, please do not hesitate to reach out to myself or Melissa Schick.

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