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Emerging Scholar Spotlight: Nicole Fava

November 2017

Nicole Fava, PhD, MSW is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work within the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work at Florida International University (FIU). After receiving her AB in Psychology and English from Bowdoin College, Nicole worked with children with histories of complex trauma and abuse through Wediko Children’s Services and the McKinley School System in Boston, MA. Inspired by the strength and resilience that she observed in these youth, Nicole pursued her Master’s in Social Work at the University at Buffalo with the intention of becoming a clinician. However, as she witnessed the synergy of interdisciplinary teams bridging research and practice, Nicole decided to pursue her PhD in Social Welfare at the University at Buffalo under the mentorship of Dr. Laina Bay-Cheng.

Broadly, Nicole’s program of research is focused on the impact of childhood trauma and adversity, with an emphasis on trauma-informed care and sexual health promotion. She investigates a myriad of developmental consequences of trauma and pathways of resilience to bridge the fields of childhood trauma and sexuality using diverse participant-centered methods. Nicole also supports trauma-informed sexuality education for all youth as a means to dispel the pervasive fear surrounding young people’s sexuality and to support their sexual and developmental rights, regardless of trauma history.

Nicole’s interest in sexual health promotion began as a response to the negative stereotypes and assumptions she saw being placed on youth with histories of abuse. As she challenged others in their thinking on an individual level, she realized that the problem was pervasive and rooted in a risk-focused culture around youth sexuality more generally. Nicole decided to use research as a vehicle for social change. In her doctoral and post-doctoral work, Nicole employed life history calendar methods and sophisticated quantitative methods to examine the impact of social context on adolescent sexuality, safe sexual behaviors as normative and growth-promoting experiences, and longitudinal trajectories of sexual health. Applying resilience theory and latent class growth analysis to the Add Health dataset for her dissertation, Nicole observed three distinct patterns of sexual health among individuals with maltreatment histories. This suggests that sexual health is possible despite experiences of abuse. Moreover, social support from family, peers, and romantic partners sequentially increased this healthy outcome.

Nicole has continued to use her skills as a social work researcher to incite change within her local community in Miami, FL. Recently, she was awarded a grant through The Children’s Trust to begin the Trauma-Informed Screening and Treatment Program. The main goal of this program is to build capacity for and extend an evidence-based trauma-specific intervention (Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy; TF-CBT) to youth and families throughout southern Miami-Dade County. Clinicians in three community clinics will become certified TF-CBT therapists, implement TF-CBT with youth and families, and Nicole will evaluate participant outcomes. Nicole states that, “being connected to and informed by the communities I seek to support through my scholarship is paramount.”

Recent research endeavors include gaining a better understanding of what constitutes sexual health, as opposed to sexual risk – the latter of which we already know a great deal – through a national-level, mixed-methods online survey about sexual health, wellness, and adversity. Nicole remains committed to exploring the complex role of sexual behaviors from a learning and developmental theory perspective. Using a mediation framework, Nicole and colleagues at FIU and the University at Buffalo found that sexual behaviors are a vehicle through which sexual well-being can be achieved. This finding held for young adults with histories of maltreatment, challenging negative assumptions around the developmental role of sexual behaviors.

Ensuring that other social workers are knowledgeable of and prepared to support individuals and communities experiencing trauma is another passion of Nicole’s. She regularly provides presentations and workshops to community groups and agencies on the developmental impact of trauma and trauma-informed care. In addition, she developed an MSW/PhD level seminar at FIU, Trauma Theory and Treatment, that is now offered annually every spring. Nicole’s advice to Emerging Scholars is to welcome opportunities of cross-discipline collaborations and to research the issues about which you are passionate. This will help prevent “siloed” thinking and give meaning to your everyday work.


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