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Regents' Professor: Laurie Chassin

April 05, 2007

ASU professor Laurie Chassin's father was a practicing physician who made a lot of house calls. As a child growing up in Queens, N.Y., Chassin was interested in her father's work and often accompanied him on hospital rounds and visits with patients in their homes. She observed his techniques in asking patients questions about their health, and about what else was happening in their lives.

Seven outstanding ASU faculty members are being honored as President's and Regents' Professor. The awards are among the highest honors for faculty excellence.

Regents' Professors stand out for their accomplishments in many areas, including excellence in teaching, exceptional achievements in research or other creative activities, and national and international distinction in their fields. The Regents' Professors include Laurie Chassin, pictured above, professor of psychology; Subhash Mahajan, director of the School of Materials; Robert Denhardt, director of the School of Public Affairs; and Richard Rogerson, Rondthaler chair of economics.

The President's Professor honor was created to recognize tenured faculty who have made outstanding contributions to undergraduate education at ASU. This year's class includes Ted Humphrey, a professor of philosophy in Barrett, The Honors College at ASU; Jane Maienschein, a professor of biology; and Jess Alberts, a professor of communication.

“Even though he was a physician, he was also very much a psychologist, ahead of his time in understanding the links between behavior and health, stress and health, emotions and health,” Chassin says.

That experience, she guesses, is what influenced her to prophetically record “clinical psychologist” as her future occupation in her high school yearbook.

“Now, I make a lot of house calls,” Chassin says, describing just one aspect of her pioneering longitudinal studies of children and families at risk for substance abuse and dependence, as an ASU professor of psychology.

Her long-term, multigenerational research stands out among an extensive list of distinguishing accomplishments that has led to Chassin's recent appointment as an ASU Regents' Professor.

One of Chassin's research programs has been funded continuously by the National Institutes of Health since she joined ASU as an assistant professor in 1979. She consistently ranks among the most highly funded researchers at ASU and has averaged $1 million per year over the last five years, and her total external support has exceeded $12 million, notes Keith Crnic, Foundation Professor and chair of the Department of Psychology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Crnic nominated Chassin for a Regents' Professorship.

“Professor Laurie Chassin has achieved unparalleled international distinction for the quality and breadth of her research in adolescent substance abuse, while simultaneously inspiring an outstanding group of students to prominent research careers,” Crnic says.

Surprisingly, Chassin admits: “I wasn't thinking about research as a career. My career goal was to be a practicing clinician. I got into research completely by accident.”

When Chassin was completing her doctorate in clinical psychology from Columbia University Teachers College, she found herself in Bloomington, Ind., finishing her degree with no job. She recalls someone saying there was a new post-doctoral training program in the sociology department at Indiana University, and that she “ought to go over and talk with them” since they were looking for a psychologist.

She was hired as a postdoctoral fellow for this interdisciplinary training program in the area of self-concept and mental health, a program funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Now, she runs a NIMH training program in prevention science.

Chassin has been the principal investigator in the NIMH training grant in child mental health and primary prevention since 1987 – a focus, she says, that was inspired by her experience as a trainee.

“Professor Chassin's dedication to graduate training is exemplified by her ability to inspire, mentor and support students to outstanding careers in research, and to engage students with her passion for research,” Crnic notes.

Chassin, with the support of this grant, has mentored 85 future scientists, including pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students, many of whose photos hang alongside photos of their babies on bulletin boards in Chassin's office.

How did someone focused on being a practicing clinician end up being recognized for her research contributions, including a study of tobacco use – the longest ongoing study of cigarette smoking in the country?

“Longitudinal research is additive,” Chassin says. “You want to see the next page, the next chapter. The best part is working with graduate students when you look at the data and see what you've found.”

Since 1980, a team of researchers, collaborators and students from several universities has been following a sample of 8,500 children originally drawn from all sixth- through 12th -graders in a country school system between the years of 1980-1983. For these initial years, they collected survey data in school annually, and then by mail and now via the Web.

One of the hallmarks of this research was the quantitative methods developed by collaborators.

“We would call and ask our questions and they would say, ‘Hmmm. That's interesting. Someone should work on that,' ” Chassin says. “So we would find ourselves one step beyond where the methods would go, but by the time we had the data, the methodology was in place. The questions we asked pushed the methodology.”

This scenario exemplifies the multivariate application in substance abuse, where researchers take the methods that colleagues are developing and put them to work, she says.

In another longitudinal study, this one a multiple-site study of serious juvenile offenders in Arizona and Pennsylvania, Chassin points out the teamwork involved in this type of research.

“I'm part of an enormous work group, involving psychologists, sociologists, criminologists and methodologists,” she says.

The data from that research is intended to inform the policy debate about interventions and sanctions for serious juvenile offenders.

Chassin also is the principal investigator on a longitudinal study looking at children in alcoholic and non-alcoholic families with the goal of understanding the intergenerational transmission of risk for alcoholism and drug abuse or dependence. In this study, researchers are asking: Why are children of alcoholics at elevated risk for addictive disorders? What is the role of psychopathology in these processes? Which children of alcoholics have positive outcomes?

Getting answers to those types of questions, and drawing implications from the data for prevention and for public policy decisions, is at the heart of what motivates Chassin in her research.

“These are incredible public health problems,” she says. “It's motivating to do something, to do research, that's attached to a real problem.”

When not working, Chassin is working out.

“Running, the treadmill and black coffee, that's what keeps me going,” she says.

Her immersion in these innovative longitudinal studies, along with her passion and commitment in the field, have earned Chassin a number of national and ASU leadership positions. She participates on national grant review panels and advisory boards that are charged with setting the national research agenda in the field of child clinical psychology, including the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Institute of Medicine and the National Academy of Sciences. She serves as associate editor for Nicotine and Tobacco Research and previously served in that role for Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. She is one of the editors of Multivariate Applications in Substance Use Research: New Methods for New Questions.

Chassin is a fellow in the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. She chairs the 2007 review panel of the Society for Research on Adolescence and has published more than 140 scientific papers. Her undergraduate degree in psychology is from Brown University; her graduate work was at Columbia University Teachers College .

At ASU, Chassin served five years as the director of clinical training. She has received the ASU Alumni Association Faculty Achievement Research Award in 2006, and now, the distinction of being a Regents' Professor.