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Lau-Barraco Wins $750,000 Development Award for Alcohol Abuse Intervention Research

Lau-Barraco in her 'bar environment' lab at ODU

Cathy Lau-Barraco, who joined the psychology faculty at Old Dominion University a year ago, has received a five-year, $750,000 Mentored Research Scientist Development Award that will advance her studies of alcohol abuse by young people.

The so-called K01 award, which also will fund numerous career training and development opportunities for Lau-Barraco, is from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This funding will help her broaden her research, which primarily in the past has focused on college students. A major thrust of the new grant is to help nonstudent emerging adults. This category of young people, she believes, may face greater severity of substance abuse problems than college students.

"Dr. Lau-Barraco is a young scientist, but already has done important research in her field," said Mohammad Karim, the ODU vice president for research. "This award recognizes what she has achieved and gives her the means to achieve much more in the near future."

Chris Platsoucas, dean of the ODU College of Sciences, said Lau-Barraco "brought impressive talent and promise to the faculty when she was hired in 2009 and we are very pleased to have her work supported by this significant grant."

Lau-Barraco is the second young scientist at ODU to receive a career development award this year. In April, oceanographer Malcolm Scully was awarded a five-year, $750,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand his studies of oxygen depletion in the Chesapeake Bay. Scully and Lau-Barraco are the fifth and sixth ODU faculty members to receive career development awards from the NSF or NIH.

For Lau-Barraco, the award has its origins in a decision she made as an undergraduate psychology major at the University of Central Florida. She served as the study coordinator of an alcohol intervention program for heavy-drinking college students. "As a result of this experience, I chose to continue in this line of research during my graduate training," she said.

But whereas her early substance-abuse work focused on college students, her studies began two years ago to look at drinking patterns for non-student emerging adults. Now, the research proposal funded by the NIAAA is geared specifically to address problem drinking by 18-25-year-olds who are not students.

Lau-Barraco noted that, in general, 18-25-year-olds are in a developmental period during which they may be more prone than other age groups to explore behavior options or have feelings of instability. "Specifically, the developmental characteristics that define this stage of life for many emerging adults can result in greater alcohol consumption, and consequently, higher risk for alcohol-related consequences." she said.

Binge drinking by college students has drawn a lot of attention from researchers, many of whom are faculty members with convenient access to students, said Lau-Barraco, who is an assistant professor of psychology.

But while college students may have a higher prevalence of drinking than high school dropouts or non-college-bound high school graduates, research findings have shown that the frequency and quantity of daily alcohol use is higher for the non-college young people. "Furthermore," Lau-Barraco explained, "non-students are less likely to transition out of heavy drinking patterns and may be at a greater risk for alcohol-related problems in adulthood than their college-attending counterparts. Consequently, they may be at a greater need for prevention programming than college students."

Numbers alone are also a reason to look closely at nonstudent drinking. According to a U.S. Census Bureau survey in 2007, approximately 52 percent of individuals between 18 and 24 reported no postsecondary educational attainment. A 2006 Census survey found only 37 percent of this age group to be enrolled in an institution of higher learning.

Under the new grant, Lau-Barraco will recruit non-student study subjects and conduct focus groups in which the subjects will be questioned about lifestyles, living conditions and drinking habits. She is interested in risk factors that predict heavy drinking by non-student emerging adults, and in determining just how different these risk factors are for non-students compared with students.

College students may have term papers due and exams looming, but their non-student contemporaries have pressures of their own that could contribute to their drinking behavior. "Non-students may face unique challenges such as full-time employment and family obligations," Lau-Barraco explained.

The young researcher also is interested in social and environmental factors, such as drinking context and peer influences, that may influence alcohol use behaviors. "We know a lot about circumstances of drinking around campuses, but we don't know as much about patterns for non-students. Students are a relatively homogeneous group, but non-students are so heterogeneous, it's harder to know."

Using focus group data from the first phase of her research project, Lau-Barraco will tailor a personalized feedback program for non-students. Half of the study subjects will get an assessment of their heavy-drinking risk factors and will receive feedback regarding their risk within a brief motivational interviewing session. The other half of the subjects will serve as the control condition and will not receive the brief intervention. She hypothesizes that the intervention will lead to reductions in alcohol use behavior over a nine-month follow-up period as compared with the control subjects.

"Implications of the findings may be profound, given the disparity in the existing literature with regard to the understanding and prevention of alcohol-related risk among nonstudents," she said. "I am extremely excited about the K01 award. Not only will I be able to conduct research in a much-needed area, but also the grant will provide me with opportunities to pursue career development opportunities.

"Dean Platsoucas and my department chair, Barbara Winstead, have been tremendously supportive of my research and grant application. I am also thankful to have the support of two senior faculty members from ODU - Michelle Kelley in psychology and James A. Neff in community and environmental health - to serve as part of the mentoring team on my K01 award."

Lau-Barraco has charted a long list of courses and conferences that the grant will fund in order to advance the scope of her research. Some of the instruction she will seek out will be in motivational interviewing, which she has identified as a promising feature of her alcohol abuse interventions. Other topics of interest are qualitative and advanced quantitative research methods.

After serving a predoctoral internship at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, Lau Barraco received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from UCF in 2006. From 2006-2009 she served a postdoctoral fellowship at the Research Institute on Addictions, University of Buffalo, State University of New York. She received the Research Society on Alcoholism's Junior Investigator Award in 2008.

This article was posted on: July 22, 2010

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