Four High-Profile Professors Join School
The USC School of Social Work has hired four new professors, bolstering its profile in the areas of child welfare and maltreatment, sociology, gangs, substance use and social policy.
A team of researchers from the University of Houston—professor Avelardo Valdez, research professor Charles Kaplan and assistant professor Alice Cepeda—are bringing a wealth of expertise in the social and public health consequences of drug use and violence among high-risk populations.
"Dr. Valdez and his research team bring several decades worth of accumulated research experience on drug use consequences, drug addiction treatment and gang activities, especially among Latino populations," said Haluk Soydan, director of the Hamovitch Center for Science in the Human Services. "The Valdez team is also well established in Mexico and is looking into expanding some of its research projects into other Latin American countries."
They are joined by new assistant professor Emily Putnam-Hornstein, who gained recognition for her work on child maltreatment at UC Berkeley.
"We are also thrilled by the addition of Dr. Emily Putnam-Hornstein," Soydan said. "Within hours of joining the center, she started preparing a proposal to bid for a prestigious Injury Control Research Center grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If awarded, this center grant will be the first of its kind at the Hamovitch Research Center."
Valdez holds a bachelor's degree in social work and a master's degree in urban affairs from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, as well as a master's degree and PhD in sociology from UCLA. As a student in the 1960s, Valdez became interested in social movements and community organizing, and spent several years as a community activist and labor organizer in Milwaukee, Miami and New York.
"I was attracted to social work because of the social justice orientation, especially compared to other disciplines," Valdez said.
Following his doctoral studies, he spent 22 years at the University of Texas at San Antonio and the past decade as a professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work. During his early academic career, he focused on teaching classes and conducting research on Mexican-origin populations and other minorities. As a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City, Valdez taught courses and conducted research among highly marginalized urban communities, where substance abuse was common. The experience sparked his interest in the connection between context and culture, and drug use and HIV/AIDS, and he quickly delved into related research with a particular focus on cities in the Southwest and along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"I saw there was very little research in that area, so I sort of carved my way into the field," he said, adding that his biculturalism and unique perspective gave him a deeper understanding of the relationship between Mexico and the United States.
As Valdez began acquiring federal grants to pursue his research, his interests spread to youth gangs and other vulnerable populations, such as injecting heroin users and sex workers, although he maintained an overarching focus on the role of social environments in risk behaviors and long-term health.
One particular study focused on gang members in their late teens in San Antonio. After an initial interview in 1995, Valdez and his team have traced their path through drug use, crime, violence and incarceration, representing one of the first longitudinal studies to examine the social and health consequences of the gang lifestyle.
The longitudinal study is being transferred to USC, and Valdez hopes to develop similar pursuits in Southern California. His team also has plans to develop a research cluster on drug and social policy at USC.
A medical sociologist by training, Kaplan holds a degree in political science from Tulane University and a master's degree and doctorate in sociology from UCLA. He has sought a balance between social work, sociology and social epidemiology during the course of his prolific research career exploring the patterns of drug use and treatment strategies. Kaplan became interested in drug abuse and addiction, then a nascent research field, after receiving additional training in biomedical research at UCLA.
Europe was just beginning to experience the effects of the heroin epidemic when he accepted a position with Frankfurt University after a brief stint at Rutgers University. In addition to exploring the spread of heroin in Germany, he studied various treatment standards and drug policies throughout Europe, eventually exploring various community approaches and residential treatment care methods in what was then the largest funded research project in Europe on drug addiction. During his time in Europe, Kaplan held positions at Erasmus University, where he established the Addiction Research Institute, and Maastricht University.
Despite spending much of his academic career in Europe, Kaplan was nudged back to the United States when the U.S. government had expressed interest in supporting research on drug use and minority populations. Kaplan also met Valdez, then a professor at University of Texas at San Antonio.
"We hit it off and started to collaborate," Kaplan said.
He began spending summers in Texas, eventually transitioning to University of Houston with Valdez. Appointed associate dean of research, Kaplan began to enhance the university's research profile while exploring the social epidemiology of drug use and its health and social consequences among minorities and special populations, such as evacuees from Hurricane Katrina and gang members.
At the USC School of Social Work, he is taking on a similar role as research professor and associate dean of research. In addition to his administrative duties, Kaplan is keen to continue exploring the preclinical patterns of drug use with his colleagues, including the emergence of crack cocaine in Mexico City and the impact of the drug wars on Latino communities.
Similar to her colleagues, Cepeda has a strong educational background in sociology. She earned a bachelor's degree and master's degree in sociology from the University of Texas at San Antonio, as well as a doctorate in sociology from the City University of New York. As an undergraduate, she became interested in drug use issues among Mexican-American populations after working at a research center conducting substance use surveys with adolescents.
"The driving factor was the inequities, the disadvantages associated with substance use among primarily poor, urban Mexican-American populations," Cepeda said.
As she pursued her doctorate, Cepeda began working with older populations, including aging Mexican-American heroin users and sex workers along the U.S.-Mexico border. She is also a co-investigator on a study exploring the emergence and spread of crack cocaine use among Latino populations in Mexico City, a topic that has yet to be explored in detail. By developing an understanding of the problem as it emerges, Cepeda is hopeful that drug treatment and prevention services can be better targeted to address the root of the issue.
In her new role at USC, she is interested in focusing on issues affecting Latina immigrant women in high-risk environments, in addition to expanding her research to other Latino subpopulations, such as Central Americans.
"As researchers, we tend to clump Latinos into one group," she said. "Getting into the nuances of each specific population is critical."
Additionally, Cepeda said she is looking forward to working with the diverse faculty at USC and transforming her social epidemiology research into a foundation for intervention and prevention services.
The fourth new member of the faculty, Putnam-Hornstein holds a degree in psychology from Yale University, a master's degree in social work from Columbia University and a PhD from UC Berkley. As a researcher, she prefers to take a wide-angle view rather than focusing on sample groups. While working at UC Berkeley's Center for Social Services Research, she helped collect and analyze data on every report taken by child protective services in California. But Putnam-Hornstein envisions an even wider reach and is stepping into her new role at USC with big plans to expand the dataset.
During her undergraduate studies at Yale, Putnam-Hornstein became involved with the Bush Center for Child Development and Social Policy and developed an interest in child maltreatment research. After graduating and spending time as a case worker for teens in foster care, she earned her master's degree in social work and began considering doctoral programs.
She quickly found herself drawn to UC Berkeley's vast collection of information; instead of sample data, the university has access to details about every instance of child maltreatment statewide.
"These are the actual children and families that are being affected," she said.
While impressed by the dataset, Putnam-Hornstein quickly found ways to improve its reach. She secured access to 4.3 million confidential birth records and 25,000 death records, and set about linking them to child protective services data. Her next step is to convince state officials to provide emergency room and hospital records, which will give investigators an even wider view of the trajectory of maltreatment and provide insight into where resources should be targeted.
"The data are just sitting there, waiting to be linked," she said.
She envisions developing a summer training institute at USC to provide guidance to researchers and students interested in working with the UC Berkeley data. Her long-term goal is to develop a greater understanding of the context surrounding child maltreatment in order to identify and provide assistance to at-risk families before maltreatment occurs.
- Master of Social Work