A new program teaches the science of addiction

(Jenna Gestetner | Daily Trojan)

The School of Pharmacy announced in August the creation of the educational program Rising STARS – Scientific Training in Alcohol and Other Substances Research – which aims to expose undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to opportunities interdisciplinary studies in addiction science. The program will be a partnership between USC, California State University, Los Angeles and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science. Rising STARS is currently accepting applications for its first cohort.

CSULA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education and Professor of Clinical Pharmacy Daryl Davies is Associate Director of the USC Institute for Addiction Science and Principal Investigator of Rising STARS. Davies was inspired to launch Rising STARS after discovering that undergraduate students have few research opportunities, which limits their ability to choose a graduate program that matches their interests.

“[Rising STARS] gives them all the practical experience to succeed and go straight to a degree or doctorate. program,” Davies said, referring to the research experience, workshops, and career development activities in which Rising STARS Fellows will participate.

Workshops during the school year can be completed in person or remotely, allowing CSULA and CDU Rising STARS Scholars the flexibility to complete the program. The workshops will cover a variety of topics to prepare students for their future graduate studies, including resume writing sessions. Fellows will also have the opportunity to work in USC labs during the summer.

Rising STARS will be comprised of approximately 80 faculty members from various schools, including USC’s School of Pharmacy, Keck School of Medicine, and Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, who will mentor scholars during the duration of their program. Rising STARS will use an interdisciplinary approach to expose researchers to a variety of approaches to studying addiction science and allow researchers to explore the approach that interests them.

Terry David Church, Assistant Professor of Regulatory Science and Quality, leads the educational component of Rising STARS. Church said he expects the program to start with about 50 scholars and grow over time.

“We need to use skills outside of our academic discipline to investigate the issue of addiction,” Church said. “We exhibit [students] different ways of looking at information to have the best tools.

Director of Programs and Communications for the USC Institute for Addiction Science Vickie Williams facilitates addiction science operations at USC and said she hopes students from different disciplines will collaborate on Rising STARS.

“We want to cultivate the talents of highly motivated undergraduate, underrepresented and minority students and give them the opportunity to be part of a great educational opportunity,” Williams said. “Whether it’s in preclinical labs, public health policy — anything that focuses on the science of addiction.”

Davies emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to addiction science. Research projects require the support of experts in various fields to be carried out and the use of a holistic approach to addiction science allows students to have a better understanding of the field and to work easily in teams.

“Understanding addiction is going to take views around the academic table,” Church said. “There are so many things that addiction affects.”

The Rising STARS program received a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse — the first of its kind to improve diversity in addiction science in the nation — to help with educational efforts. It will be distributed to the program over a period of approximately five years, which will support two cohorts of researchers for two-year terms.

Church said it’s important to study the science of addiction because over time new compounds and drugs are created. Some drugs have the potential to be highly addictive and need to be studied at the molecular and societal levels to prevent addiction.

“Addiction covers a range of topics,” Williams said, noting that the sources of addiction are many and diverse. “There are opioids, intravenous drugs, social media, telephones and food addictions.”

Rising STARS intends to give underrepresented students the opportunity to be innovative, creative and flexible, Davies said.

“The goal is to really engage people and help them develop their creativity, as well as advance their desire, interest, and understanding of what addiction science really entails,” Church said. “Thanks to their participation, [students] we hope we can help solve a lot of the addiction issues we have had by making sure we have good treatment, research and care programs.

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