PhD Student Receives NIH NRSA Grant

Growing up in the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, PhD student Vanessa Curlee has witnessed firsthand the negative effects that substance abuse and mental illness can have on a community. Having personal experiences with individuals that suffer from addiction, she has witnessed how this disorder can destroy families and communities and hopes to find a way to improve the health of vulnerable populations.

As a member of the inaugural cohort of the Duke-WSSU Nursing Bridge to the Doctorate Program, Curlee is the first of this Bridge Program to receive a National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Award (NRSA) funding to support her doctorate research. The Duke-WSSU Nursing Bridge to the Doctorate Program is a NIH funded collaboration between Winston-Salem State University and Duke University School of Nursing that seeks to increase the number of underrepresented minority PhD nurse scientists.

Earning the NIH NRSA for her proposal entitled “Gender, Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Mental Health, Substance Use Disorders and Behavioral Treatment Utilization in US Parolees and Probationers within 12 Months Post-release,” Curlee is excited to use the funds to help further her research. This award is a highly selective, prestigious funding source for doctoral and post-doctoral trainees who demonstrate aptitude for conducting high-impact, original research with scientific merit. Curlee and her mentor, Beth Merwin, have been awarded a total of $79,412 with $71,012 of that total supporting Curlee over two years in stipend support.

Her research is devoted to the identification of methods to improve access to and effective interventions for parolees and probationers re-entering the community. These parolees suffer from mental health disorders and/or substance use/abuse and Curlee is particularly interested in the gender, racial and/or ethnic disparities that exist in the behavioral health needs of this population.

“I am very proud of Ms. Curlee’s success. In a quiet, unassuming manner, Ms. Curlee entered the Bridge to the Doctorate master’s program with a commitment to improving the health of vulnerable populations and has focused her research in that area,” says Debra Brandon, PhD, RN, CNS, FAAN, project director for the Bridge Program, former director of the PhD program and associate professor in the Duke University School of Nursing. “Ms. Curlee’s passion is evidenced in her new NIH funded grant.”

Curlee feels her research is important and has far-reaching implications. She believes it’s an opportunity to truly advance health equity in the area of behavioral health across all health populations.

“Being awarded a NIH NRSA grant is a tremendous honor that will greatly help cultivate my long-term research and career goals,” says Vanessa Curlee. “This funding will greatly enhance my pre-doctoral experience by allowing for increased conference attendance and training programs that I otherwise might not be able to afford.”

In the future, Curlee hopes that her research can be applied to other populations and contribute to advancing the science on mental health disparities, substance abuse and addiction. Furthermore, she envisions the knowledge gained from her research can be used to further understanding and contribute to prevention and treatment strategies for all populations.

“There is no greater fulfillment as a faculty member than to watch the growth of a student across academic programs and across time,” says Beth Merwin, PhD, RN, FAAN, executive vice dean of the School of Nursing. “As Vanessa’s Duke mentor in the Bridges program and her advisor and now dissertation chair for the PhD program, I have always been struck with her passion and desire to make a difference in this world. She has an admirable willingness to take on challenges, difficult projects and more coursework than required.”





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