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SBU News > Awards and Honors > A Conversation with Dr. Ijeoma Opara, Winner of Early Independence Award

A Conversation with Dr. Ijeoma Opara, Winner of Early Independence Award

Ijeoma Opara

Dr. Opara is a recipient of a 2020 National Institutes of Health Early Independence Award

Tell us about yourself:

Ijeoma Opara
Ijeoma Opara

I’m an assistant professor in the School of Social Welfare with a specific interest in youth and families. I’m also the founding director of the SASH Lab at Stony Brook University and visiting faculty at Yale School of Public Health through the Research Education Institute for Diverse Scholars program (REIDS).

I would describe myself an interdisciplinary scholar. I have a PhD in Family Science and Human Development from Montclair State University, Master of Public Health in Epidemiology from New York Medical College and a Master of Social Work from New York University. My training and experiences in these fields shape my view of social issues and inform my belief that families and communities play a major role in health outcomes pertaining to children and youth.

You have a public health background, what led you to pursue a career in social work?
When I was a public health intern at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I worked on a National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded project in Baltimore on asthma morbidity in African American children. Through the data I saw that there were significant associations with asthma morbidity and parents who smoked cigarettes and parental stress. I then realized how parental behaviors can have an impact on children and felt that if clinicians were able to intervene with parents and provide mental health services first, that can help improve the health outcomes of their children. That insight is what sparked my interest in social work, and I used this work for my master’s thesis.

How did you become interested in community-based participatory research?
I’ve been lucky enough throughout my career to work on research projects that understood the importance of community-based work. At Johns Hopkins, the principal investigator at the time led a community advisory board that included residents of Baltimore. When I became a social worker, I worked as a youth and family therapist as an in-home counselor and that shaped my views on how neighborhoods and everyday environment can impact behaviors of the child and their families. I would have to walk the same streets that my clients walked on a daily basis which gave me a glimpse of some of the challenges my clients face first hand.

As a PhD student, I was a fellow under two Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration funded projects. The first was a Minority Aids Initiative grant and the second was a Drug Free Communities grant. Both projects were based in Paterson, NJ and incorporated CBPR principles. I heard first-hand what youth desired for their community and how they wanted their stories to be told. All of those experiences made me fall in love with community based participatory research.

The NIH Early Independence Award is a very prestigious award. How did you hear about the award and the process of applying for it?
The EIA funds and supports exceptional early career scientists for a five-year research study. The EIA is so prestigious that only a few people are even allowed to apply for the award. I first heard about this award in June 2019 from Associate Dean for Research Dr. Michelle Ballan. I was in residence in New Haven, CT at a summer fellowship program at Yale School of Public Health (REIDS), and I received an email from Dr. Ballan, who told me to consider applying to being nominated to submit a full application for this award. I almost told her that I can’t do it because I literally just graduated with my PhD less than a month prior and had no grant writing experience whatsoever. After speaking to my mentor, Dr. Trace Kershaw, who is the director of the REIDS program at Yale, he told me to go for it and see what happens. He reviewed my specific aims and gave me feedback along with Dr. Ballan and shortly after submitting my application for nomination, and shockingly, the next day, I was selected by Stony Brook to submit a full application to NIH.

It was a short window, and I had less than two months to submit the NIH application as it was due in September, and I was just nominated in July. In addition, I couldn’t submit the application as a faculty member, which made the window even shorter. To add to the pressure, this was in the summer before I started at Stony Brook. I had just started the summer fellowship program at Yale in which I had to write a pilot study proposal for that was due in August, and I was still working part-time for my former research advisor while also preparing to teach two classes for my first semester at Stony Brook. While juggling all of this, I was talking to staff at the Office of Proposal Development at SBU, working with Dr. Ballan on a daily basis for support and mentorship on the grant, and consulting other staff at SBU.

I wasn’t totally confident that I would be awarded because the competition is so intense and fierce, but I knew I had to do what I could to submit a perfect application. There were nights where I didn’t sleep because I would be up working on my application. I still don’t know how I survived that time. If you ask my friends, they would tell you that I talked about this grant every single day for about two months!

How did you come up with the scope of your project?
Because the EIA is intended to fund really innovative, and creative high-risk, high-reward studies, I knew I had to think outside of the box in order to impress the reviewers. I was so focused on trying to propose an idea that sounded “edgy” and “complex” that I changed my specific aims and scope of my project at least 20 times before arriving at the idea for my now funded project.

One piece of advice that Dr. Ballan gave me while coming up with an idea, which I think is a big part of why I got this award, was that she told me to just be myself and propose an idea that is important to me. She reminded me that I loved Paterson and that I needed to focus on filling a gap in this community in the field of substance use prevention. Because my work relies heavily on CBPR principles, I was nervous about proposing a CBPR project because I didn’t think NIH reviewers would appreciate the importance. Not only did the EIA reviewers appreciate it, they LOVED it. I received an almost perfect impact score on the application. Dr. Ballan’s advice was the best piece of advice I ever received, and I would encourage every early career researcher who is writing a grant to do the same.

In addition to Dr. Ballan, I also sought advice from community partners in Paterson on what the needs were in Paterson and how we can make this application unique but also impactful for Paterson youth and the community. I had daily meetings for about three weeks on ideas and gaps that my grant could potentially fill for the city of Paterson while also advancing the field of substance use prevention research. I received support from educators, policymakers and directors of community-based and youth-serving organizations on my project, which gave me the push I needed to submit the perfect application.

What is the focus of your research project?
My project will look at the role of neighborhoods on substance use and mental health outcomes among youth in Paterson. I’m focusing on connecting underlying issues such as anxiety and depressive symptoms that are often associated with substance use and how specific conditions in neighborhoods can be a source of support or risk factors for youth in Paterson. While working with community partners, a consistent theme I heard was the gaps in mental health resources and services for youth. It was important for me to include this scope in my application in order to investigate issues that lead to mental health symptoms and ultimately develop a community and neighborhood-specific intervention that addresses substance use and mental health for youth between the ages of 13-21 years old.

Tell us about the process and the impact of your research that you aspire to.
I really want to protect the health of Black and Hispanic youth who live in urban communities. I want to change the narrative that urban youth are hopeless and doomed. There are protective structures in neighborhoods that can be highlighted and replicated to improve health outcomes for all youth in urban neighborhoods as opposed to viewing urban communities through a risk lens. My research, using strengths-based and culturally relevant approaches, will change the way substance use and mental health work is done in urban communities so that more resources can be in place for urban youth.

This NIH Early Independence Award is part of the High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program. How would you say this qualifies — what are the risks, and what are the potential rewards?
I would say the risks to this project are the difficulty in recruiting youth who aren’t connected to schools or organizations in the community. Such youth are what the public would define as “at-risk” or “hard to reach” youth. But in my view, there is no such thing as a “hard to reach” population. It’s my job as a researcher and principal investigator to find this population, listen to this population and work with this population based on what they need. From the previous work I have done, community partners in Paterson have told me that we have to literally meet youth where they are. We have to go to the places they frequent the most, see what makes them comfortable, what their challenges are and understand their every-day surroundings. This is what informed my decision to use venue-based sampling in this project.

The potential reward to my work is highlighting the use of this method as the go-to method for working with youth in urban communities. In order to understand behaviors, you have to understand the environment and meet them where they are.

You’re the first social worker to receive this award, correct? How does it feel to be the first social worker to receive this award?
Yes, I am the first social worker to receive this award. It’s honestly a big shock to me that I even got this award. I was extremely intimidated to even apply for this award because when I looked at the previous recipients, there was no one who looked like me nor had the professional and educational backgrounds that I had. The program mainly funded biomedical scientists who do lab work — which isn’t me. If it wasn’t for the support of Dr. Ballan and my mentor, Dr. Trace Kershaw, who both believed that I was in a good position to apply for the Early Independence Award, I would have never considered applying.

Dr. Ballan told me last year when I applied that I would be the first social worker to get this award, and I remember laughing at how optimistic she was. She ended up being correct! I hope that by winning this award, more social workers and other social scientists would be inspired and would consider applying to the High-Risk High-Reward program and other NIH mechanisms. There are so many great and innovative ideas out there that need to be funded. I’m grateful to the National Institutes of Health for having such a great program for early career researchers like myself to achieve research independence.

What made you decide to come to Stony Brook?
The rich resources that Stony Brook University and the many opportunities to collaborate with faculty in different programs such as School of Medicine and Program of Public Health is what attracted me. I also love the “family-like” feel of the School of Social Welfare. When I interviewed, Dean Mondros told me that she had a vision to invest more in faculty that were interested in the social determinants of health and loved the fact that I had a background in both public health and social work. It was clear that she appreciated me as a scholar and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure I was successful while on the way to tenure. There’s no greater feeling than being in an institution where your work is appreciated, and you feel valued as an individual. Those are a few of the many reasons why I chose to come to Stony Brook.

You are a SUNY PRODiG Fellow. Can you tell us about your Fellowship experience?
I am part of the inaugural cohort of the SUNY PRODiG Fellowship. PRODiG is an initiative to recruit diverse and underrepresented faculty members. The program provides research support to myself and five other underrepresented scientists at Stony Brook.

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