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Opara receives $3.5 million grant to curb urban drug use, involve youth in research

August 22, 2023
by Fran Fried

Yale School of Public Health Associate Professor Ijeoma Opara has received the NIDA (National Institute on Drug Abuse) Racial Equity Visionary Award. The award is a NIDA DP1 grant for $3.5 million over five years that will allow her to work within predominantly urban neighborhoods to curb substance use among racial/ethnic minorities.

“I am enormously proud of Dr. Opara for receiving this prestigious award,” said YSPH Dean Dr. Megan L. Ranney, MD. “It is a testament to her long-standing commitment to both community-centered research and innovative, rigorous scientific methods. This award also highlights YSPH's commitment to the future of public health – one of inclusive, equitable, and data-driven approaches to health leadership. I am so excited for Dr. Opara and the community with which she works.”

Opara, an associate professor of public health (social & behavioral sciences), has been intensely focused on writing her grant proposal over the past year. “I was ecstatic and thrilled,” she said about receiving news of the award. “I knew getting this grant would be such a game-changer for not only my career, but for the communities I work with as well.”

Her goal is twofold: to find a way to stem substance use among minority youth by changing the way youth are looked at in research; and to encourage young people of color to become more involved in machine learning and algorithm training. Toward this part of the goal, she intends to introduce youth to advanced statistical methods and artificial intelligence, while also encouraging them to become more passionate about solving the substance-use crisis in their communities.

“As a Black female scientist, I want to both end the substance-use epidemic and also inspire the next generation of scientists of color to use strengths-based approaches in their communities,” she said. “This grant is allowing me to do both, and I am so grateful for it.”

The award is part of NIDA’s Racial Equity Initiative (REI), established in 2020 to organize the institute’s efforts to promote racial equality and eliminate racism in NIDA’s workplace, scientific workforce, and research portfolio.

Opara is focusing on two cities in her native home state of New Jersey, Paterson and East Orange, where she has already established strong ties. Through the work of her SASH (Substances and Sexual Health) Lab at YSPH, she discovered that targeting individual-level behaviors to curb substance use might not be the best approach. Rather, understanding the role of neighborhood characteristics – their resources, or lack thereof – might be a better strategy.

As a Black female scientist, I want to both end the substance-use epidemic and also inspire the next generation of scientists of color to use strengths-based approaches in their communities. This grant is allowing me to do both, and I am so grateful for it.

Associate Professor Ijeoma Opara

She also sees an opportunity, with the rise of artificial intelligence, to work with community members to conduct data-driven research, including co-creating machine learning systems to predict and prevent substance-use disorders. Coming up with more accurate neighborhood statistics would also work toward eliminating racial bias in data sets – inaccuracies that can affect algorithms used in addressing substance use.

“I noticed that the field of artificial intelligence was moving fast, and there were issues around racial bias in algorithms, but not enough discussion on how to fix these concerns,” she said. “I knew that the answer was more community involvement and training to understand data science and AI more.”

It was the AI aspect of the research that prompted Opara to pursue the grant. She was at a writing retreat with members of her lab last August when she received an email from a colleague who thought she would be the perfect person to pursue this grant. A DP1 grant, a National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award (NDPA), is given to support individuals who have the potential to make extraordinary contributions to medical research.

“Because the DP1 specifically wants scientists to pivot to a new direction in their careers,” she said, “I figured this would be the perfect time for me to start thinking about how we can use artificial intelligence and data science in substance-use prevention research.”

Her postdoctoral mentee, Dr. Sitara Weerakoon, and Emmanuella Asabor, a joint MD-PhD candidate at the Yale School of Medicine and YSPH, were with her at the retreat, and she asked them, “Wouldn't it be cool if we not only merge community-based participatory research with machine learning, but actually get the community trained and involved in algorithm development?” They convinced her that this was doable, and Opara began putting her proposal together right then and there.

As it’s early in the process, Opara is still planning her core team. But two fellow YSPH faculty –Trace Kershaw, department chair and Susan Dwight Bliss Professor of Public Health (Social and Behavioral Sciences); and Joshua Warren, associate professor of biostatistics – have provided her with their expertise, and will be part of the team. In addition, she will have support from leaders and policy makers in East Orange and Paterson to guide her research team throughout the duration of the study. And she is optimistic that she and her team will be able to effect change.

“I think ending substance use and addiction is complex, but it can be done,” she said. “Not only do we need to acknowledge an environment's role in substance use, but we also need to think about how racism directly impacts the type of neighborhoods youth live in, and their exposures to certain factors that may lead to substance use.

“We also need to involve youth of color from urban communities in all levels of research,” she added, “not just as participants, but as the scientists of the future who will have an impact in their own communities.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on August 18, 2023