The core of what makes us human

Psychology Professor Laura Brandt’s commitment to researching substance use disorders

Laura Brandt
The core of what makes us human: Psychology Professor Laura Brandt’s commitment to researching substance use disorders

Please share something about your personal and professional background, and what brought you to CCNY and the Colin Powell School.
I am from Germany and lived in Austria for about 13 years before coming to New York, and my journey here was and is a winding road with many bumps and curves. While I knew that I wanted to become a researcher relatively early on during my graduate studies and my interest in addiction developed soon after, I would have never guessed that this path would lead me here. One important thing to know about Austria is that it’s tiny – the population of Austria is roughly the population of NYC! Consequently, there is very limited research funding, particularly for “niche” fields such as substance use disorder (SUD). For people in North America this may sound outrageous, given that SUDs are such an important public health challenge, but the “opioid epidemic” has affected European countries to a much lesser extent for many – partially complex – reasons (some of which I discuss in my class “Assessment and Treatment of Substance Use Disorders” in the Mental Health Counseling program). Therefore, my growing interest in SUD research, and particularly opioid use disorder and opioid overdose prevention, made it almost inevitable to leave beautiful Vienna and travel across the big pond. A fellowship from the Austrian Science Fund allowed me to do just that. I spent my first three years at Columbia University, in the Department of Psychiatry, and eventually I started craving discussions with fellow psychologists – no offense to psychiatrists! A colleague connected me to a research team at CCNY – Drs. Teresa Lopez-Castro, Adriana Espinosa, and Bob Melara from the Department of Psychology – and I simply loved working with them. I explored ways of spending more time in this creative, dynamic, and diverse space, and lo and behold, the Department of Psychology was hiring Assistant Professors – for the first time in eight years – and I was incredibly fortunate to join their faculty.

How did you decide to pursue a PhD and discover a passion for your field?
I got hooked on research pretty early on in my graduate studies. Through an Abnormal Psychology class, I became interested in alexithymia, a clinical construct manifesting itself in an inability to perceive and describe emotions sufficiently. At the time, only a few experimental studies examined the automatic processing of emotional information in alexithymia – so I set out to do just that. This plan was way overambitious for a thesis, but rather than deterring me, my wonderful mentor Dr. Ulrich Tran – after quite a bit of convincing – invested an enormous amount of time and energy in guiding me through the process of setting up and carrying out my study (if you are interested in the details see here). It took everything that I had to complete this project, but from thereon I was head over heels fallen for science and pursuing a PhD was the logical and necessary next step to work towards a research career. My interest in substance use disorders was fueled by my experiences during my post gradual clinical training which I completed at an addiction treatment center. I still remember sitting with my very first patient and, albeit having absolutely no idea what I was doing, I felt like I was in the perfectly right place. In my view, substance use and substance use disorders touch upon the very core of what makes us human and I cannot think of a more fascinating and daunting scientific pursuit.

Can you please briefly describe your scholarly work and findings? What’s most meaningful to your field – and to you – about your work?
One of my main research interests is in the implementation of interventions for substance use disorders and particularly overdose prevention. Reducing fatal opioid overdoses remains a major challenge for public health. Nonetheless, many opioid overdose deaths are preventable, and programs have been developed where laypersons are given brief education in recognizing the signs of opioid overdose and trained to respond to these situations including the use of naloxone, an opioid “antidote”. We often refer to these programs as “Overdose Education and Naloxone Distribution” (OEND). OEND is an effective public health intervention to reduce opioid overdose fatalities. However, in the US as well as in Europe, different services have produced a range of OEND training protocols over the years, varying in their format, content, and level of training. These variations make it difficult to determine which contents are routinely covered in trainings, and to understand how this may influence outcomes, such as overdose knowledge and readiness to respond to an overdose situation. Addressing the question how differences in implementation have influenced outcomes of the intervention is incredibly relevant because it builds a bridge between the laboratory (where interventions such as OEND are developed under controlled conditions) to the real world (where these interventions are then used under “non-controlled” conditions). Interventions may work perfectly in a laboratory context, but fail to benefit people in the real world. Critically evaluating the bridge from laboratory to practice and checking where it may be brittle helps us ensure that we implement evidence-based programs to benefit all who need them. If you are interested in details of my work on the implementation of OEND see here.

Can you say a bit about what you like about CCNY and the Colin Powell School? Perhaps speak to your work with students.
I was overwhelmed by the warm welcome to CCNY and the Colin Powell School, both from the staff and the students. I quickly noticed more signs of a kindness with which people tend to treat each other at CCNY. Just to name one of many examples: It seems to be a universal rule that everyone holds the door for everyone. This does not seem like a big deal, but we are in NYC (you all know what I am talking about) and this seemingly simple act translates into a metaphor: here, no one will slam a door in your face – to the contrary, we will open it for you. To me, this attitude makes CCNY and the Colin Powell School special and it is expressed in a myriad of opportunities offered to students (fellowships, stipends, and other programs) geared towards supporting them in pursuing their individual academic paths toward a career that best fits their unique skillset and interests. It is truly rewarding to be part of this community and after a class filled with inspiring discussions from a highly diverse range of perspectives, I gladly accept an elevator that is overcrowded because the other ones are not working (anyone who occasionally visits the NAC building will know what I am talking about).

Share something about your plans — regarding research, teaching, engagement — for the next couple of years?
I am currently in the process of establishing my own lab at CCNY. For the past few years, I worked in a hospital setting and had patient contact on a daily basis. I still struggle a bit with finding creative solutions for translating my research activities, which used to involve patients, into a public-school setting where it is more difficult to conduct clinical research. However, I cannot wait to work with students and I have no doubt that, together, we will come up with study designs that not only work around but exploit this unique setting to produce new and exciting research.

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