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Q&A with Carrie Oser

Alumna and professor in the Department of Sociology, associate director of the Center for Health Equity Transformation, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Drug and Alcohol Research

Carrie Oser, professor and associate chair in the Department of Sociology, is a ’ 98 UK graduate, the associate director of the Center for Health Equity Transformation (CHET) and a faculty affiliate of the Center on Drug & Alcohol Research (CDAR). Her research interests include addiction health services, health disparities/equity, HIV risk behaviors/interventions, social networks, implementation science and substance use among rural, African American or criminal justice populations. 

In 2015, Oser received the Senior Scholar Award from the American Sociological Association's Alcohol, Drugs, & Tobacco section.  She leads the Geographic variation in Addiction Treatment Experiences (GATE) study, which received a $3 million grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on General Medical Sciences, and is a co-investigator on six other federally funded projects. 

Q:  Could you tell us about yourself and your life as a UK student?

A:  I grew up down the road and, when I was looking at colleges, I obviously looked into UK and the University of Louisville. I also visited state schools outside of Kentucky, but I made the right choice and decided to go to UK. I double majored in sociology and psychology. I was involved in Greek life and an officer in Alpha Gamma Delta. I was also on the UK Dance Team. Throughout college, I either worked part-time at a restaurant in the area or was a lifeguard at the local YMCA. 

Q:  What made you decide on sociology and psychology majors?

A:  I came into college not knowing exactly what I wanted to do, similar to many other students. I explored different opportunities as an undecided major, which helped me find the best fit. It was when I took a sociology class that I found what I was passionate about and wanted to pursue as a career path. One faculty member in particular, Dr. Pamela Wilcox, really provided that transformative experience. She was passionate about her research, teaching undergraduate students, and the field of criminology. She organized tours of prisons and juvenile detention centers as well as had other active learning opportunities built into her classes to reinforce sociological and criminology concepts. 

I also was able to do an independent study. I applied and received a Summer Research & Creativity Fellowship from the Office of Undergraduate Education, which provided a stipend of $2,500. I collected survey data from people who were incarcerated to examine how people’s  evaluations of self-esteem were associated with their criminal behaviors and how this was influenced by being consistently involved in the justice system since youth. As an undergrad, I was able to present research findings at a national conference and publish that research in a peer-reviewed journal. This academic enrichment opportunity laid the foundation to be successful in graduate school. 

Q:  What made you decide to come back to UK as a professor?

A:  I think it was a combination of my love for Kentucky, my desire to be near family, and to be able to help people who lived in Kentucky. Unfortunately, Kentucky faces numerous health challenges, so the ability to be able to address health inequities, especially substance use, was one of the driving factors. Also, it was attractive to be able to collaborate with faculty in other departments who were doing substance use research. UK is nationally known as a leader in the substance use field.  

Q:  What do you try to instill in your students?

A:  I think that studying something you’re interested in is important, but it must have the potential for a positive impact on society. I also instill the importance of conducting both rigorous and ethical research, and appreciating different perspectives.  Depending on the research topic, it may be important to ensure that people who are affected are included in the research process.   

Q:  What does your current research involve?

A:  Right now, I have a grant that is called the GATE Study, which stands for Geographic variation in Addiction Treatment Experiences. The focus of the GATE Study is to see how peoples’ social networks influence their decisions on whether or not to use medications for the treatment of opioid use disorder. Currently, the U.S. has three FDA-approved medications to treat opioid use disorder, but they’re not widely used, especially in correctional settings. In Kentucky, two of these medications are voluntarily available right before community re-entry to people with opioid use disorders who have completed prison-based substance use treatment programs. These medications help prevent relapses during the difficult time of being released from prison, when people are trying to find employment and unifying with their families as well as maintaining their recovery. So, I’m looking at how peoples’ networks influence the use and continuance of the medications after they’re released with a specific focus on if there are rural or urban differences. 

Q:  With your research and focus on substance use, why do you personally feel this research is important?

A:  It’s an issue that has touched so many peoples’ lives and is complexly multi-faceted. It affects educational opportunities, employment, family dynamics, our criminal justice system including prison overcrowding and where government resources are being allocated. I’ve been personally affected, having family members and friends who have substance use problems. I have lost a friend to a fatal opioid overdose. This is tragic as opioid overdose deaths are preventable. Yet, we still see these staggering rates of overdose deaths. But, it’s preventable if we can deploy more evidence-based practices in our communities and overcome stigma. Opioid use disorder is one of these underlying factors where if it is not addressed, it will have so many negative ripple effects on communities. 

Q:  What do you hope your legacy at UK will be?

A:  That is a good question. Hopefully, when I leave UK it will be when I retire! I hope my legacy is that I was committed to improving the lives of people with substance use disorder and their families, and that I helped develop the next generation of substance use scholars.