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Can we see the future? Beth Stormshak on prevention science

Seeing the future has long been the province of sci-fi and metaphysics, or those who claim to have psychic powers. Of course, we can’t really “see” what’s going to happen with any certainty, but we can make predictions about the future based on our understanding of the past. We analyze patterns and the influence of environmental, internal and external forces to make educated guesses. Some systems, like weather, we cannot affect. Patterns involving human behavior, however, spread out over time, is something we can and do influence with a high degree of success. This is the province of prevention science.

By understanding and identifying risk factors in young people and families, prevention scientists can predict certain behaviors later in life and, hopefully, deliver an effective intervention that keeps people on the path to realizing their full potential. Like any predictive modeling, it isn’t always right. Not every kid surrounded by risk factors like poverty and substance abuse is fated for failure, just like not every kid from a privileged, nurturing environment is destined for success. There’s a reason they’re not called deterministic factors.

For Beth Stormshak, director of the Prevention Science Institute (PSI) at the University of Oregon College of Education (COE), the question of nature vs. nurture has been answered: It’s both, and it never was that simple in the first place. The more risk factors there are, the harder it becomes for a naturally resilient kid to overcome them, and vice-versa. Of course, there’s always a question of correlation or causation in Stormshak’s work; learning that a woman who was placed in a remedial reading program 15 years ago is now teaching high-school English is gratifying, but whether it was directly attributable to the intervention is virtually impossible to prove. Fortunately, the data makes it very difficult to argue whether well-timed, well-managed interventions translate to better outcomes over time. That question also has been answered: They do.

“What prevention is really about is helping people make good decisions at critical junctures that change the course of their life forever,” she says, using the example of dropping out of high school. “Graduating puts you on a different life path. So many different doors will open up for you … that’s really the work that we’re doing here."

PSI is under the auspices of both the COE and the Office of Research and Innovation, the latter of which affords rich opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration. It currently houses faculty from the COE and psychology, part of the College of Arts and Sciences, with myriad possibilities for other collaborations. Researchers with backgrounds in clinical psychology, social and affective neuroscience, school psychology, and human development work together to take a more comprehensive approach to prevention. There’s little question that this represents the future of the discipline.

A side effect of this cross-pollination is that COE faculty have deepened their understanding of the science behind learning and behavior. For example, PSI researchers have access to the functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, machine at the UO’s Lewis Center for Neuroimaging. By studying neural pathways in the brain, researchers like Elliot Berkman can focus on mitigating the effects of certain factors, such as reduced inhibitory control, to develop better interventions. While neuroscientists study brain activity, Stormshak’s colleague in the COE, Elizabeth Skowron, is looking at how the avoidance of maltreatment by a mother may cause physiological stresses that she unconsciously avoids through harsher behavior toward her child. Atika Khurana studies the interactions between neural control and reward systems as predictors of early-onset risk behaviors.

Our research has always been housed in the settings where we want those programs to be successful.
—Beth Stormshak

The strength of UO’s prevention research helped lead to the creation of a specialization in prevention science, which is attached to the COE's MEd program in Counseling Psychology. Eventually the college hopes to make it a separate master’s program, though the specialization option will likely remain in play. In any event, UO’s reputation as a hub for prevention research should continue to grow. Stormshak says the UO’s legacy of prevention research goes back at least three decades.

“Some of the foundational research in the area of prevention science occurred either here at the UO or in our Eugene community, with collaborators. We’re really well-known for that. We have particular strengths in prevention of problem behavior, delinquency, school-based behavior problems - we have a number of faculty here who have had long, successful careers focusing on those problems and have developed school-wide programs that really address those issues. We also have faculty who have a clear focus on family-centered mental health and working to prevent problems by focusing on families. We’re set up very well to continue this work because we’re focused not only on methodology but implementation science. How do we develop programs and get them out into schools and communities? Our research has always been housed in the settings where we want those programs to be successful,” she says.

Stormshak is also the leader of the Health Promotion, Obesity Prevention and Human Development Cluster of Excellence, part of a UO-wide faculty hiring initiative to create multidisciplinary teams across departments and colleges. Connie ’84 and and Steve Ballmer pledged $50 million to the UO close on the heels of its $2 billion campaign announcement, $20 million of which is funding Stormshak’s cluster. The five new faculty members will all support UO’s prevention science efforts, with a particular focus on obesity prevention and health promotion.