Women Making History: UK researcher works to reduce harms from substance use

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Throughout March, the University of Kentucky is spotlighting Women Making History during Women’s History Month. These women are leading their fields of research and impacting the lives of Kentuckians.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 29, 2024) — For more than a decade, a University of Kentucky researcher has been developing new methods to help and empathetically serve people struggling with substance use disorder to reduce some of the harm that they experience. April Young, Ph.D., professor in the UK College of Public Health and faculty associate with the UK Center on Drug and Alcohol Research (CDAR) discovered her passion when she was growing up in rural Georgia.

“I decided I wanted to do research when I was young. I was exposed to science in elementary school,” said Young. “It was then when I realized that I don't have to necessarily take someone else's word for it. I don't have to wait for someone else to find a solution to a problem. I can study it and determine the answer using my own approach.”

Young credits the strong support she received from her family and mentorship she received from her teachers, many of whom were women, for encouraging her love of science.

“I went into my undergraduate degree at Transylvania University and found a mentor there who was doing research. She inspired me to pursue being a faculty member and to work in the field of public health.” 

Kentucky ranked 4th in the nation in overdose deaths in 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 2009, Young has conducted substance use research and has led five federally funded studies including projects focused on identifying community-rooted solutions for addressing drug-related harms such as overdose and hepatitis C. One such project is the Kentucky Communities and Researchers Engaging to Halt the Opioid Epidemic (CARE2HOPE) that she led with her colleague, Hannah Cooper, Sc.D., Emory UniversityCARE2HOPE was awarded the American Public Health Association (APHA) Epidemiology Section’s 2023 Public Health Practice Award.

“When we talk with people who are actively using drugs or who have a substance use disorder, what I see is that these are amazing people with a lot of potential, a lot of creativity, and who deserve compassion," said Young. "They are experiencing barriers that have been set up through policies and social structures that set them behind, and instead of helping them get back on their feet, society often just puts hurdles in their way to recovery.”

Some of those hurdles often include transportation to treatment, being refused prescriptions, criminal legal system involvement, and stigma. Young’s work is focusing on ways to overcome these obstacles by creating more confidential ways for those who are using drugs to engage in services like syringe service programs.

“We’ve realized that we need to use some out-of-the-box, innovative approaches,” she said. “We’ve gone into communities to recruit people who use drugs by doing everything from grilling hot dogs at gas stations and parking lots to trying to find strategies where the health department can do outreach in places like encampments of people experiencing houselessness. We’re changing the model and taking services to the people rather than expecting them to come to us.”

Young is currently teaching a class on substance use through the public health lens for undergraduate students in collaboration with Angie Carman, Dr.P.H., UK College of Public Health.

“I have tried to put people who use drugs in a position to talk with the students," Young said. "We’ve had panels of people who are actively using or are in the very early stages of remission and the students have had a chance to submit questions to them. I think that that has been one of the most powerful parts of the class. All of that came from what I've learned through our research.

“I feel well-supported as a woman in research at the University of Kentucky. We have a female chair, a female dean and a female vice president for research. By having those people involved, I can see a career path if I was to ever want to move forward in leadership and research. I’m surrounded by amazing colleagues in the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research, most of whom are women, and who’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. I can see paths forward and all around me with women doing research.”

Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number UH3DA044798. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. 

April Young, Ph.D.
April Young is a professor of epidemiology and environmental health in the UK College of Public Health and faculty associate with the Center on Drug and Alcohol Research. Pete Comparoni | UK Photo

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