NIH Group Appoints UTEP Psychology Professor to Prestigious Post
Last Updated on March 31, 2020 at 12:00 AM
Originally published March 31, 2020
By Daniel Perez
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) recently appointed The University of Texas at El Paso’s Laura O’Dell, Ph.D., to a four-year post on its advisory council.
The NIAAA, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), selected O’Dell, an award-winning researcher and professor of psychology, because of her outstanding scientific contribution in the study of neural mechanisms that control addiction to certain drugs of abuse such as nicotine.
O’Dell attended her first National Advisory Council meeting for NIAAA in February 2020. She described the group as interdisciplinary, which reflects the problem of addiction that crosses various scientific disciplines such as neuroscience, biology, psychology and sociology as well as analysis at different levels.
The UTEP professor, whose research focuses on the addictive properties of nicotine, said the NIAAA expects its council members to use their expertise to inform the institute about the issues and initiatives that it should address related to alcohol and public health.
“Alcoholism is a debilitating, pervasive problem that cuts across all health agencies,” O’Dell said. “The problem of alcoholism is pervasive particularly in our border region. I am excited to work with the group to better address this problem that disproportionately affects Hispanics.”
As a council member, she will advise, assist and make recommendations to the secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services and NIAAA directors on matters related to the activities carried out by and through the institute, as well as policies that affect those activities. She plans to focus on the underlying reasons for health disparities and their causes such as language barriers and lack of access to medical help.
“I will use my voice to try to understand how drug addiction might contribute to health disparities in Hispanics,” she said.
O’Dell said this appointment is an opportunity to learn from “top-notch” researchers in their own health-related fields. She added that it also was a chance to represent UTEP and to create a network that would benefit UTEP students and other faculty members.
“This is a prominent group and it is wonderful to be included in circles like this,” O’Dell said. “Where there is a prestigious post, there is an element of respect from people in your field. It’s nice that people in my field recognize that I’m someone who can influence what we should be studying.”
Abraham Bautista, Ph.D., director of the NIAAA’s Office of Extramural Activities, said O’Dell was the first UTEP representative on an NIAAA council. She has been a member of the NIAAA’s Advisory Council Working Group on Diversity and Health Disparity for about a year. He said that the institute’s leaders were impressed with the UTEP professor’s research, awards and efforts to support future researchers.
Bautista mentioned O’Dell’s work funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse into sex differences and predictive biomarkers, as well as when she earned the prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2008 from the President of the United States. He added that institute leaders also noted her grant-funded efforts to train post-doctoral fellows and undergraduate investigators. This background will help the NIAAA know the best ways to enhance diversity in the biomedical workforce for abuse researchers.
O’Dell, an El Paso native who graduated from Loretto Academy in 1987, attended UTEP for two years before she transferred to Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degrees in psychology and biology in 1992. She received her master’s and doctoral degrees in behavioral neuroscience from Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in 1994 and 1997, respectively. UTEP hired her in 2005.
Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of the College of Liberal Arts, said the college was proud of O’Dell and of her appointment to this prominent group.
“It is a mark of success,” O’Hearn said. “It is a reflection of the caliber of scholars we have in our college and at UTEP.”
O’Dell’s department chair, Edward Castañeda, Ph.D., professor of psychology, echoed the dean’s comments.
“This is a highly prestigious appointment in the upper echelons of the NIH,” Castañeda said. “It speaks loudly to the resource that Laura is to the science of addiction at the national and international levels. With great distinction, she also represents opportunity to Latinx students – females and males – because she is a native El Pasoan who has paved a path into scientific inquiry for nontraditional people.”