Professor researches alcohol behaviors in bar lab

May 4, 2011

As long as you’re 21 or older and meet the inclusion criteria, ASU professor Will Corbin wants you to drink for science.

“People think that this must not be real,” Corbin said. “They think that it’s a joke or something. Drink for science and get paid to do it?” Download Full Image

Corbin studies the effects of alcohol on behavior by administering alcohol to paid participants in his “bar laboratory.”

The goals of Corbin’s research are to improve the understanding of factors that lead to the development of alcohol-related problems and to develop effective programs for reducing alcohol-related harms. Corbin doesn’t think it is realistic to try to stop all drinking by college students but, he said that he hopes to “to reduce the harm associated with drinking by college students.”

In order to construct as realistic of an environment as possible, Corbin has created a simulated bar at the psychology north building on ASU’s Tempe campus. G. Alan Marlatt built the first bar lab at the University of Washington in the early 1980s and since then various bar labs have cultivated across the country.

Substance use disorders are the third most common psychiatric diagnoses and heavy alcohol use contributes to a host of high-risk behaviors such as unprotected sexual behavior that increases risk for HIV/AIDS, other drug use, problem gambling and driving under the influence, which is responsible for a large percentage of traffic-related fatalities.

In addition to examining alcohol effects on behavior, Corbin uses the simulated bar to study individual differences in subjective experiences of alcohol effects. Corbin believes that the use of a simulated bar is particularly important for this research because these effects would differ in a natural drinking context versus looking at them in a sterile lab environment.

Corbin tries to make the drinking experience as realistic as possible in other ways as well.

“I think if we brought people in at 8 a.m. and gave them alcohol we’d be working against a ‘natural environment,’” Corbin said.

So the experiments are hosted two nights a week from 5 p.m. to around midnight in the lab, known as the Behavioral Alcohol Research for Clinical Advancement lounge, or BARCA lounge.

Designed to resemble a real bar, the ceiling is black, the floor is a dark synthetic wood, the walls are beige, there are no windows, and the lights are always dimmed. A photograph of Tempe at night taken from Tempe Butte covers half of one wall. In the middle of the room four cushioned chairs center a small table. Four narrow pendant orange and brown lights hang above the orange-colored bar counter. A flat-screen TV hangs in the corner of the room and another one hangs behind the bar. Bottles of liquor line the shelves behind the bar. Two neon signs light-up the otherwise dimly lit room. The whole BARCA lounge takes up around 800 square feet with the bar area itself taking up around 400 square feet.

“I think that people step into the bar and they sort of forget that they’re inside psychology north because it feels like they’re in a real bar,” Corbin said. “People can’t believe the bar exists in the middle of a university building.”

Another important part of the natural setting is drinking in groups, Corbin said. They aim for four participants a night and won’t collect data unless there are at least two participants.

“The number of college students drinking alone is relatively small compared to the number drinking in a social context,” Corbin said.

Because the researchers want all of the participants to have the same blood alcohol level of .08, they adjust the amount of alcohol administered based on gender and weight. Within 30 minutes, as top 40 music plays, participants drink roughly the equivalent of three mixed vodka drinks.

Prior to drinking, participants complete surveys and perform computer based tasks. After drinking participants complete additional surveys and behavioral tasks. To measure subjective alcohol effects, participants rate feelings such as sociable, reckless, and lonely on a 10 point scale. Even though the procedure ends around 9 p.m., participants stay until their blood alcohol levels return to .02., which can be anywhere from midnight to 2 a.m.

While participants wait for their blood alcohol content to drop to a safe level, they hang out in the lounge. Corbin said participants usually watch TV or pick a movie from the DVR. Sometimes they’ll play Xbox. Snacks such as granola bars, and chips and salsa are provided. Participants are also allowed to order food. If they need to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, they’re always escorted by research staff.

Corbin said they have very well established procedures for protecting research participants.

“Even after their blood alcohol levels come down to a .02 we still provide them with transportation home,” Corbin said. “They’re not allowed to drive to the study. We don’t want to put any of our research participants at risk.”

While Corbin conducts lab based studies weekly, his research also includes longitudinal studies of risk and protective factors for substance use, subjects that originally sparked his interest in studying alcohol.

Corbin just finished a five year longitudinal study with Professor Kim Fromme, his post doctoral supervisor at The University of Texas-Austin, where he conducted his first lab based alcohol research. Corbin and Fromme monitored a wide range of risk behaviors in the 2004 freshmen class at The University of Texas-Austin. They’ll use the data to understand factors that contribute to substance use and abuse in college students.

At Yale University, a school where Corbin spent seven years as a faculty member, he is part of an ongoing study, “Project Choice,” which is conducted under the direction of Stephanie O’Malley. This study targets 18- to 25- year-olds who are interested in reducing their alcohol consumption but do not necessarily want to stop drinking. Even though the study takes place in Connecticut, Corbin continues serve as an investigator on the project and works with collaborators through video conferences and visits to New Haven.

Even if he’s not working on a specific project he’s always looking for ways he can help prevent alcohol problems.

“The real key to success for those trying to reduce their drinking is motivation,” Corbin said. “Think about all of the ways that your alcohol use has negatively impacted your life and use that to motivate your efforts to change. It also helps to think about all of the ways that your life might be better if you changed your behavior. If you can keep your motivation high, your chances of succeeding are good.”

For people who are just beginning to experience alcohol problems or have not yet developed physical dependence on alcohol, they can learn to reduce their alcohol consumption to safe levels. Corbin said the first step for them would be to set goals for safe levels of consumption.

Corbin said he’s really interested in working toward developing new prevention programs on campus in the future.

Instead of focusing on reducing drinking directly, Corbin wants to increase focus on activities that are incompatible with heavy drinking and to get students re-engaged in the academic aspects of the university.

'Hurricane' concludes Rhodes' voodoo trilogy

May 4, 2011

She dipped her hands into the pail. The water was clear, and she washed her palms clean. She cupped water in her hands, and smelled it as it dripped, disappeared through her fingers.

Plain water. No special odor. She tasted it. Just water. How did it connect with the shape-changing spirit’s words: “Watch the waters?” Download Full Image

Throughout Jewell Parker Rhodes’ newly published novel, “Hurricane,” the spiritually powerful Marie Lavant is warned about the water. But what do the warnings mean? What should she do?

Readers who have already devoured the first two books in Rhodes’ New Orleans trilogy know that they are in for a gripping story filled with spirit beings, romance, mystery, danger – and a reverence for things unseen.

“Hurricane,” the last of the trilogy, follows Dr. Levant, who is a descendent of the voodoo queen Marie Laveau, in the days before Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans as she is pulled into the investigation of the murder of a family and tries to discover what residents of DeLaire are hiding.

The first book in the trilogy, originally called as “Yellow Moon,” and now renamed “Moon,” was published in 2004. “Voodoo Season” – now “Season” – followed in 2006. “Hurricane” completed the series in April 2011.

Rhodes answered questions about “Hurricane” and her trilogy for Insight.

Did you have "Hurricane" in mind for the last book in the trilogy when you started on the first one?

Not at all. Originally, I had planned a paranormal mystery series with my protagonist (a descendent of Marie Laveau) using her skills as a doctor and spiritual healer to solve crimes.  But, when Katrina hit, I felt called to respond. Especially since my character was a doctor at Charity Hospital which was slow to be evacuated. To this day, Charity remains closed, an enormous towering derelict of stone, reflecting a public health system permanently damaged.

I knew my trilogy had to incorporate Katrina and the environmental racism that left many low-income residents especially vulnerable when the levees broke.

Marie, as a protagonist, had to develop in spiritual power while also accumulating knowledge about New Orleans’s history and its environs. The layering of landscape—and its deterioration related to changing the Mississippi River’s course in the 19th century, pesticide dumping, and oil drilling in the 20th and 21st century.

“Hurricane” was in publication when the BP oil spill occurred. Though the novel explored oil damage and the Gulf Dead Zone, I was able to recall the manuscript and develop more about an oil spill’s destructive power.

Where did you do your research on voodoo and all of the other gods, beliefs and ceremonies you wrote about in “Hurricane”?

In 2009, the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution mounted a brilliant exhibit, honoring the African water goddess, Mami Wata, and the permutations of how her spirit transformed as slaves carried their faith into the New World. The Fowler Museum at UCLA first exhibited the collection of sculpture, paintings, and mixed media and published a glorious book, “Mami Wata: Arts for Water Spirits in Africa and its Diasporas,” written by Henry John Drewal (and contributors Houlberg, Jewsiewicki, Noell, Nunley, and Salmons).

Mami Wata’s core emphasis on fertility, creating new land and new worlds, and celebrating womanist power resonated deeply with me.

Mami Wata, for me, became a symbol for the Mississippi River itself, dammed to serve human needs. Clearly, responsible environmental stewardship means balancing resources with certain and potential damage, and having a care for how for the vitality of the environment for future generations.

There is frequently a dog in your stories. Why is this?

Kind Dog (named after the dog in the British Ant and Bee books) is in “Season” and “Moon.” Spot is the dog in “Ninth Ward,” my children’s book about Katrina. The dog in “Hurricane” is named Beauregard.

I love dogs and have experienced first hand their love, loyalty, and bravery during the Northridge earthquake disaster. Both the trilogy and “Ninth Ward” serve as tributes to animals and are, specifically, a loving nod toward Kahn, a black lab mix, that my family rescued and had the privilege of knowing for 12 years.

Did you have the end of Hurricane in mind when you started writing it?

I didn’t know specifically how “Hurricane” would end. I assumed it would end back in the city. But when I wrote the last bits of dialogue, when K-Paul and Marie are driving, racing behind the hurricane, it seemed right. So, I stopped.

You left us hanging about whether Marie chooses Parker or K-Paul. Was this deliberate? Do you have a favorite of the two whom you think Marie should be with?

I’m not sure why I left Marie’s romantic choice open.  Maybe I was unconsciously leaving it open for another book.  So many folks want to know what happens with Marie’s love life!

But I also think I didn’t write a choice because I didn’t want a romantic attachment to trump Marie’s journey in becoming a strong woman and gifted spiritualist. Her choice of a companion matters far less than the healing she gives to her community.

I like both Parker and K-Paul. Of course, there’s still the beloved memory of Reneaux. Marie has had good men in her life; and Reneaux, Parker, and K-Paul were lucky to have had the opportunity to know such a splendid woman as Marie.

What's next on your writing "to-do" list?

I’ve finished a young adult novel.  Now I’m writing another children’s book and an adult novel.

You said that the first chapter of Ninth Ward came to you in a dream. Did you immediately start working on the book? And how soon in the writing process did you see the end?

When Hurricane Katrina hit, I worried about the children. It wasn’t, however, until 2008 when Hurricane Ike was threatening the Gulf, that I went to sleep and work up with Lanesha’s voice and the first lines of “Ninth Ward.” My wonderful Little, Brown editor, Jennifer Hunt, asked for a 48-hour exclusive to see the book and promptly bought it. Jennifer and I worked on revising and editing the book for another year. “Ninth Ward” was published in August 2010, the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

What does “Hurricane” mean to you?

For centuries, environmental damage and environmental racism have afflicted Louisiana and the Gulf marshes and waters. Science, spirituality, and historical perspective are all needed by my protagonist, Marie to understand why New Orleans was so vulnerable in 2005 to Hurricane Katrina and why the levees failed.

In the metaphorical world of “Hurricane,” Mami Wata came to symbolize the devastation of the Gulf coast region, in general, and the dead zone in the Gulf, in particular. Irresponsible environmental stewardship that had made New Orleans and the coast especially vulnerable to Hurricane Katrina seemed, in my imagination, a cry from Nature, Mami Wata, herself.

Having constricted Mami Wata, her waters were unable to give birth to new land that was essential to creating and sustaining life – both human and animal.

The 2010 BP oil spill compounded problems in the Gulf of Mexico and reinforced my theme of human hubris versus humility in resource extraction.

My protagonist, Marie, doesn’t have the answer to solve environmental problems.  But she does have faith—a spiritual belief that Nature, itself, is a good to be honored.  She also has courage and optimism to lend her talents to heal a community undone by natural and man-made disaster.

“Hurricane” ends my contemporary voodoo trilogy.  Marie Laveau neé Levant has become a quintessential Louisianan. She’s become strong enough to keep fighting for the city and state she calls home. She’s comfortable with her spiritual power, unafraid of battling injustice, and honored to proclaim her name to the world: “I am Marie Laveau.”

She is one, in a long line of women, handing sight, strength, and love, down through the generations.