Ijeoma Opara, Ph.D., LMSW, M.P.H., recently joined the Yale School of Public Health as an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Her research focuses on HIV/AIDS, STI, and substance use prevention for urban youth, racial and gender specific prevention interventions for Black girls and community-based participatory research with urban youth. Opara is the founder and director of the Substance Abuse and Sexual Health Lab. She took some time out of her busy schedule to tell a little about herself.
Describe in general terms your area of expertise and what you are currently working on.
IO: I am an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the principal investigator of the Substance Abuse & Sexual Health (SASH) lab at Yale. Within my lab, I focus on two major lines of research that involve using strengths-based approaches: 1) youth substance use and HIV/STIs, and 2) developing racial- and gender-specific substance use and HIV/STIs prevention interventions for Black girls. In 2020, I received the NIH Director’s Early Independence Award, which provides me five years of funding to investigate a neighborhood’s impact on substance use and mental health outcomes among urban youth living in Paterson, New Jersey.
What are your longer-term goals in public health?
IO: My goal is to be the leader of racial- and gender-specific substance use and HIV prevention interventions through changing the deficit lens that is often placed on youth of color in prevention/intervention work. By focusing so much on risk and the etiology of addiction and disease, we miss opportunities in prevention to learn from youth who live in the same community who are not engaging in substance use or behaviors that increase their chances of being diagnosed with a STI or HIV. I focus on highlighting strengths-based approaches in prevention work by utilizing the roles of social support, community and culture (racial/ethnic pride and identity) in reducing youth substance use and improving sexual health outcomes among Black urban youth and other youth of color living in urban neighborhoods.
How did you first become interested in this field?
IO: I interned at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine when I was a M.P.H. in epidemiology student more than 10 years ago and fell in love with community-engaged research. It helped me to understand the value of working collaboratively with community members to solve a problem unique to their neighborhood, as they are the experts. I became a social worker after that and worked as a youth and family therapist in New York City, working primarily with Black and Hispanic teen girls. From my work with teen girls, I saw the need for clinicians, researchers and community members to be aware of the importance of supporting youth, highlighting strengths in youth, but also providing them with culturally specific education and resources to improve health outcomes. This led me to pursue a Ph.D. in Family Science & Human Development. My interdisciplinary background has been a gift to the work I do because I received stellar training in viewing youth substance use and HIV prevention and utilizing multiple frameworks to work on solving this complex problem.
How do you feel about joining the Yale School of Public Health?
IO: Joining YSPH was a no-brainer to me. The research that is being conducted at YSPH is top-notch, due to the array of resources that are made available to YSPH faculty that aids in strengthening our work to achieve health outcomes for various populations. I’m among a sea of brilliant and talented scientists who are so willing to collaborate and work together to solve complex public health problems and it is truly priceless.
What is one word that describes you, and why?
IO: Resilient. I’ve had lots of trials and tribulations throughout my life, both personally and professionally, but I have been able to strive and achieve things that I never knew I could achieve due to my passion and the support that I have received from my chosen family and community.
What are some of your interests and activities beyond academia?
IO: Outside of academia, I love writing, binge-watching crime and mystery documentaries, eating great food, trying out new spas, and spending time with family and close friends.