With significant racial gaps in research across the country, a University of South Florida assistant professor is leading a program that encourages students from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds to explore careers in addiction research and biomedical sciences – an initiative essential to creating a diverse workforce and mitigating existing health disparities, such as the opioid crisis.
Funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the program – Substance Misuse and Addiction Research Traineeship – offers undergraduate students a hands-on research opportunity to advance science on the causes of drug use, prevention and treatment of substance use disorders and advance research on underrepresented communities who experience disproportionate consequences of drug use.
USF Mental Health Law and Policy Assistant Professor Micah Johnson founded the program and says the hope is that the students will go on to become independent drug misuse researchers who help reduce the gap in addiction research, especially in underrepresented communities.
“A researcher’s work tends to reflect who they are and where they come from. Without diversity in the workforce, minority communities are negatively impacted because research areas – such as health disparities among Latino, Native American and Black communities – are underrepresented,” Johnson said. “An example of this is the opioid epidemic, where the lack of African American researchers was directly reflected in how little research was available to help the African American community during crisis.”
Between 2010 and 2021, the National Institutes of Health reported 2.6% of scientists designated as principal investigators on at least one research project grant were Black or African American. The small pool of applicants from underrepresented groups is both a challenge and an opportunity the NIH hopes to resolve by supporting intiatives, such as Johnson’s program.
“Representation is incredibly important in order to achieve equality," said Oluchi Nwankwo, who’s majoring in health sciences. “As a first-generation African American woman, I want to serve my communities well and be in spaces to contribute to the growing need for people like me in the field that lacks people from underrepresented backgrounds.”
Over the next three years, the program will provide 24 students, including Nwankwo, with mentorship and year-round training to increase their confidence and professionalism while they actively investigate substance misuse, such as adolescent addiction. It also provides stipends to students to help alleviate financial strain – a challenge that commonly prevents many underrepresented, first-generation and disadvantaged students from fully committing to their education.
“There are not many immersive, real-world research opportunities for undergraduate students,” Johnson said. When he started graduate school, Johnson says he noticed many gaps and deficits in his own undergraduate experiences, including lack of opportunities and exposure to research – both things he now strives to improve for students, like Nwankwo and Elian Ruiz-Arevalo, a biomedical sciences undergraduate student aspiring to be a pharmacologist to assist underrepresented communities.
“This program impacted me by giving me the means to be able to conduct research that works to assist members of my community,” Ruiz-Arevalo said.
This feature is part of USF's series of stories that celebrate the work and accomplishments of its community members throughout Black Heritage Month. A list of university events can be found here. For additional stories, click the "Black Heritage Month" tag on the bottom of the page.