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Teaching Adolesence

Emerging Scholar Spotlight: Elisa Trucco

October 2015

Elisa Trucco is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology and the Center for Children and Families at Florida International University. She has a unique background that combines clinical psychology, developmental psychopathology, substance use disorders, and strong quantitative methods. Her program of research is interdisciplinary and centers on understanding the etiology of substance use in adolescence from a social ecological perspective.

Elisa’s path to a faculty position in Psychology started with a conversation with her college academic advisor. Elisa was interested in applying to Ph.D. programs in Clinical Psychology so that she could treat adolescents with mental health problems. In order to be a more competitive applicant, it was recommended that she gain additional research experience. Elisa found a job opening for a position at McLean Hospital’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Program. Under the mentorship of Shelly Greenfield she worked on the design and evaluation of a manual-based group therapy tailored for women with substance use disorders. Little did she know that this is where she would find her passion.

After this experience, Elisa pursued Clinical Psychology programs that emphasized research and would combine her interests in adolescence and addiction. She found a great fit working with Craig Colder at the University at Buffalo. There, Elisa worked on two large R01 projects funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) examining developmental precursors of adolescent substance use. Her graduate work demonstrated that alcohol and cigarette use may meet different social needs across adolescents and identifying these motivations may be useful in creating specialized interventions. Youth with social status motivations are more susceptible to peers that smoke since they may find cigarette use as an effective way to project an image of dominance. Interventions addressing alternative ways to achieve a positive reputation may be most effective for these youth. In contrast, youth with belongingness motivations are more susceptible to peers that drink alcohol since they may find alcohol use as an effective way to project an image of someone who is social. These youth may be best supported by interventions focused on how to form lasting social connections.

After her doctoral work, Elisa was interested in gaining additional training in molecular genetics. She was selected for a T32 interdisciplinary fellowship through the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) and a T32 interdisciplinary fellowship through NIDA under the mentorship of Robert Zucker and Margit Burmeister through the University of Michigan. During her fellowship, Elisa explored the role of genetic variants outside of a risk framework. She found that the same genetic variant that was responsible for enhanced susceptibility to adverse contexts and increased substance use also increased sensitivity to positive contexts, such as prosocial peers and involved parents. These studies significantly contribute to the literature as they demonstrate that traditional conceptualizations of genetic variants as purely risk factors may be inaccurate.

Elisa received a number of accolades for her innovative research, including the Research Society of Alcoholism’s Enoch Gordis Research Recognition Award and the Young Investigator Award. Elisa recently received a Career Development award from NIAAA. With this grant Elisa will be the first to apply latent variable modeling to gene by environment research, an approach capable of addressing current pitfalls in traditional methodology. Her long-term goal is to translate this interdisciplinary research into practical applications for the improvement of existing prevention programs for youth.

Elisa thinks that the key to success is perseverance. It’s important to find something that you are passionate about and to surround yourself with people who inspire and support you. This will make all the difference.

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