Our Work Requires a Team Approach


A version of this blog was distributed as an op-ed to several regional newspapers on December 12, 2017. 


The scourge of opioid abuse and addiction is wreaking havoc on Kentucky. Addiction is a disease of despair, victimizing individuals and communities when they are most vulnerable.

It does not discriminate by ZIP-code or neighborhood; race or ethnicity—it affects us all.

Universities across the country are locked in a fight against opioid abuse. The University of Kentucky is among the leaders, working in partnership with local, state, and federal stakeholders to stem the tide of this insidious menace.

In recent days, I traveled with a team of UK faculty and clinicians to Washington, DC to outline our multi-faceted response to this challenge and the support we need to continue our work and progress.

UK’s team included faculty from seven different colleges and UK HealthCare who are engaged in substance abuse and addiction research, supported by $22.5 million in research funding. This research agenda is part of the University’s $350 million research enterprise, which now places us 41st among all public research universities in the country.

Our team included:

  • Dr. Carrie Oser, a sociology professor examining health service utilization, drug treatment outcomes, and infectious disease prevention among rural residents and minorities.
  • Dr. Kristin Ashford, a nursing professor and co-creator of the Perinatal Assistance and Treatment Home (PATHways), which is helping pregnant women who use opioids. Since the program launched in 2014, more than 150 women have received treatment through PATHways; of those, 77 percent who were admitted to labor and delivery tested negative for illicit drug use.
  • Dr. Donald Helme, a communication professor examining multi-platform communication campaigns designed to prevent risky behavior, especially drug use, and promote healthy behaviors.
  • Dr. Alison Davis, the executive director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky (CEDIK), who is designing and implementing community-based drug intervention programs in Eastern Kentucky, including needle exchange, hospital-based behavioral health programs, and strategies to reduce substance abuse. 
  • Dr. Mark Fillmore, a psychology professor researching the linkages between drug abuse and the acute and chronic effects on cognitive and mental functioning in human subjects.
  • Mark Birdwhistell, Vice President for Administration and External Affairs, who has a long history of improving health care outcomes for Kentucky. He’s helping build a bridge between UK HealthCare, the research enterprise, and policymakers at the state and federal level.
  • Dr. Jeffery Talbert, a professor of pharmacy practice and science focusing on the intersection of policy decisions and health outcomes. 
  • Dr. April Young, a public health professor who works with our Center on Drug and Alcohol Research and is helping lead a $1.16 million cooperative research effort to build community-grounded health responses to combat opioid abuse in Appalachia.

Their work is making a difference. But they will be the first to tell you that progress is not possible without the support they receive from committed graduate students.

If you consider the $11.2 million in research funding the University received from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) last year alone, that work was made possible by 22 graduate students engaged in these efforts as their calling.

Graduate students are on the frontlines of research in our labs and in the field. They mentor, teach, and advise undergraduate students, supporting more than 30 percent of the credit hour production on campus. Without our more than 7,100 graduate students, UK’s capacity to provide a high-quality undergraduate education and conduct important research would be significantly diminished.

And, through their research and skill, they will help shape knowledge creation, innovation, business, industry, and society after graduation.

Undermining their capacity to work–by burdening them with taxes that many simply could not pay–would also damage our country’s global competitiveness. Many who want to pursue graduate education in areas of need in this country would not be able to afford it.

Most significantly, earlier versions of tax reform that the Congress is considering repealed important tax benefits for graduate students who serve as teaching or research assistants as part of their academic training. The U.S. Senate’s version of that package does not include those provisions.

Now, representatives are in a conference committee to hammer out differences in the package that will go to the President. We communicated and are hopeful that tax provisions impacting graduate students remain out of the final package.

Finally, we shared with our delegation the importance of a diverse campus community. College campuses thrive because of different perspectives, experiences, and backgrounds that come together in community. That diverse community provides all of our students with a broader understanding of the world and global economy in which they must all compete.

Students on our campus and in this country because of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or (DACA) arrive with the goal of earning a degree.

They, too, want to contribute and serve their communities upon graduation. They, too, are gaining skills that employers want.

We believe it is critical that Congress act soon to strengthen our nation’s commitment to these students.

We share challenges.

We also share a future.

With highly regarded researchers, clinical programs, and the support of graduate students, UK and UK HealthCare are addressing opioid abuse at the cellular and community levels.

The same approach is true for a number of critical challenges across health care, economic development, and education. We are working in labs, clinics, classrooms, and communities to address the issues most important to Kentucky and to our world.

But it is work that is done together – professors, working with graduate students, amidst a diverse community of talent.

We believe – we know -- that the answers to our challenges will be found together as well.