ASU professor awarded grant for research in adolescent substance use

Kit Elam, assistant professor in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse and Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research has awarded Kit Elam, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, the Mentored Research Scientist Development Award.

The award provides support of intensive, supervised career development in the biomedical, behavioral or clinical sciences leading to research independence. Elam was chosen for his project, “Gene Environment Interplay Underlying Negative Family Environments and Family-Based Interventions in Early Adolescent Substance Use.”

“I’m particularly interested in child aggression and genetic influences,” said Elam, a faculty member in the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. “Those are two bodies of research I’ll try to be merging and looking at their interplay. The third body of research is how that contributes to substance use later in life and whether there’s intervention effects that buffer the influence of children’s genetics on negative family environments or between negative family environments and substance use later in life.”

A benefit of winning the award is the ability to train with a number of mentors who will help Elam gain expertise in a number of realms. During the first two to three years of the grant, Elam will be supported to build advanced skills and tools in bioinformatics.

“The award is a more unique mechanism because it includes a training and a research portion,” Elam said. “I’ll focus on building those skills and methods first and then in the final two or three years, there will be more of a focus on publishing and applying those methods to looking at gene environment interplay in the family.”

Elam has been interested in studying child development since before he went into graduate school. He began developing research skills by looking at genetic influences on behaviors in twins, but his post-doctoral research led him to be more interested in how the family environment contributes to behavioral outcomes.

“A lot of people do research on negative family environments and substance use, or they do research on genetics and substance use, or intervention research, but not a lot of research is looking at all of these pieces together,” Elam said. “Biological scientists are looking at the function of genes on behavior, but nobody has really taken those skills and applied them to family studies.”

Elam’s ultimate goal for the project is to better the lives of children and their families through his research.

“I hope to develop new methods that will advance the field of behavior genetics and family studies,” Elam said. “I think this can be accomplished through developing applied materials from this research for communities, but also interventions and refining interventions so they’re more effective for at risk youth.”

His findings will be regularly published through academic manuscripts throughout the course of the project. He will also put together conference presentations based on his findings. At the end of his grant, Elam hopes to write a R01 Research Grant to the National Institute on Drug Abuse to continue his research.

“I’ve proposed to submit about two manuscripts every year in the first couple years where it’s less research heavy and three or four in the later years,” Elam said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to translate some of that to both applied materials for children and families but also some of this research should inform intervention designs to help refine intervention designs for children and families.”

Elam is eager to take on the project. His new and innovative approach to researching substance use in adolescents is pivotal to the development of family studies.

“I’m really excited at this point because it really was just about two months ago that I found out it was funded,” Elam said. “I’m really excited and I think in talking with my different mentors, there’s a lot of innovative avenues we can pursue. So I’m just really excited to get started.”

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