Orange Alert

Professor and Ph.D. Candidate from the Department of Psychology Awarded NIH Grants for Alcohol-Related Research and Treatment

Professor Sarah Woolf-King received an NIH R01 clinical trial grant and Ph.D. candidate Fatima Dobani was awarded an NIH F31 dissertation research grant.

Dec. 4, 2023, by Dan Bernardi

Sarah Woolf King and Fatima Dobani
Sarah Woolf-King (left), associate professor of psychology, and Fatima Dobani (right), a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, were each recently awarded prestigious grants from the National Institutes of Health.

Nearly 30 million people in the United States struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is characterized by impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. Of that 30 million, less than 10% receive treatment, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Among the barriers to care are cost, stigma and presence of co-occurring psychological symptoms or conditions, including anxiety, depression and trauma.

Through the development of novel intervention strategies, members of the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology are dedicated to advancing treatment for individuals suffering from AUD. This is another example of cutting-edge research at Syracuse that contributes to human thriving, a key pillar of the University’s new Academic Strategic Plan. In support of that work, a psychologist and graduate student in psychology were recently awarded grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Sarah Woolf-King, associate professor of psychology, received a five-year R01 award (major NIH research grant awarded to individual investigator teams) to test the efficacy of a novel approach to decrease alcohol use and improve co-existing psychological symptoms among people with HIV. A second NIH award – an F31 dissertation research grant – was obtained by Fatima Dobani, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology. The prestigious F31 award will support her work to generate a way to measure how discrimination against Multiracial young adults contributes to alcohol misuse among that population. Her study will develop a discrimination scale to help inform culturally sensitive intervention strategies.

Sarah Woolf-King: Testing a Versatile Alcohol Treatment

Unhealthy alcohol use has been found to affect nearly every stage of the HIV continuum, from diagnosis to care. Previous research indicates that greater than moderate alcohol use among people with HIV (PWH) may be linked to a process called experiential avoidance – where individuals repeatedly engage in behaviors, such as substance use, to escape or avoid unwanted thoughts, feelings or urges. Resulting consequences for PWH who drink in excess include lower usage of HIV treatment, sub-optimal adherence to treatment and even mortality.

Sarah Woolf-King’s NIH grant, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for HIV+ hazardous drinkers: A randomized clinical trial, seeks to test the efficacy of an ACT treatment, developed by her team, that is designed to target experiential avoidance among PWH who drink at unhealthy levels. She and her team hypothesize that because ACT focuses on a mechanism (i.e., experiential avoidance) that underlies multiple forms of psychological and behavioral health problems, it will not only reduce alcohol use, but it will also improve symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. Her team’s proposed clinical trial will consist of a brief, telephone-delivered version of ACT that is specifically tailored to PWH who drink at unhealthy levels. Participants will receive six, 30- to 45-minute ACT treatment sessions that focus on core skills related to behavioral health including: clarification of core values, being present in the “now”, acceptance of uncomfortable feelings, unhooking from difficult thoughts and development of self-compassion.

Woolf-King hypothesizes that this therapy will improve upon the existing standard Brief Alcohol Intervention (BAI), which consists of two, 30-minute sessions, followed by two 5- to 10-minute calls. The content of the BAI focuses on situations that can trigger urges to drink, the development of a drinking reduction plan and increasing participation in activities that do not involve alcohol. While both interventions are predicted to reduce alcohol use, Woolf-King says ACT will help myriad other facets of participants’ lives.

“We hypothesize that ACT will improve functional outcomes related to relationships and job attendance,” she says. “The mindfulness skills and values-guided behavioral action plans leveraged through ACT are used to decrease experiential avoidance and impact a broad array of psychological symptoms via improved psychological acceptance.”

Because their version of ACT is brief, telephone-delivered, and addresses several psychological and behavioral symptoms, the team believes it could be implemented into other medical settings where patients cope with multiple mental and physical health problems, among them specialty care clinics (e.g., chronic pain) and general primary care clinics.

In addition to Woolf-King’s most recent NIH grant, she is also a co-investigator on a project called SEARCH, where she and her collaborators are developing a multipronged strategy of interventions to reduce HIV incidence in East Africa, one of the regions most affected by HIV in the world. She is also associate director of the NIH-funded Syracuse University-Summer Training in Alcohol Research (SU-STAR) program, which brings undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds across the U.S. to the Syracuse campus for structured training opportunities in alcohol and related health research.

Fatima Dobani: Addressing Alcohol Use Among an Understudied Population

The Multiracial population (individuals with parents from two or more racial and ethnic backgrounds) is among the fastest growing in the United States. According to Census data, from 2010 to 2020 this segment of individuals grew from 9 million to 33.8 million, an increase of over 250%. While rapidly growing, there remains a critical knowledge gap when it comes to understanding how discrimination may contribute to heavy alcohol use and related problems among Multiracial young adults.

Fatima Dobani’s project, Multiracial Discrimination Scale: Development and Psychometric Validation of its Associations with Alcohol Use and Misuse among Multiracial Young Adults, aims to create a tool for researchers to accurately capture the lived experiences of Multiracial people and in turn investigate the associations between Multiracial discrimination and alcohol misuse.

Dobani’s NIH grant, which is her first, will support specialized research training toward her dissertation. A member of psychology Professor Aesoon Park’s Addiction, Development and Equity Lab, Dobani’s interest in alcohol-related health research with the Multiracial population was sparked by a recent study published by Park’s lab. The study found that Multiracial high schoolers may be a potential high-risk group for discrimination and risky health behaviors.

“Racial discrimination is multifaceted for Multiracial people and may be distinct from monoracial discrimination, as Multiracial people may uniquely experience discrimination due to having multiple group memberships,” says Dobani. One unique form of discrimination faced by this population is known as racial identity invalidation, where others dismiss or reject an individual’s racial identity. This type of stressor can negatively affect mental health and be a gateway to alcohol misuse.

Her dissertation project will involve conducting a focus group with Multiracial young adults to document their experiences with discrimination. She will then use those findings to generate items to validate into a Multiracial Discrimination Scale. This scale will be used to measure the scope and magnitude of the Multiracial discrimination-alcohol misuse pathway to potentially highlight an intervention point prior to when the individual engages in harmful drinking habits.

“More research focusing on the diverse experiences of Multiracial young adults that relate to health behaviors, such as alcohol misuse, is a critical first step to understand racially relevant factors contributing to alcohol misuse disparities for this population,” says Dobani. “This research could subsequently inform tailored treatment and prevention efforts in order to reduce the harm associated with alcohol misuse among Multiracial young adults.”

Dobani’s grant will fund her work on this project over the next two years.

Learn more about the Department of Psychology.


Sarah Woolf-King Associate Professor

Fatima Dobani Graduate Student

Media Contact

Dan Bernardi