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FHS undergrad working on summer research fellowship

The study of at-risk youth at the College of Education is hardly novel, nor is a summer fellowship. But when its recipient, a first-generation college student named Mariam Admasu, is an undergrad in Family and Human Services, well - that’s what a researcher might call an outlier. COE Professor Leslie Leve, principal investigator on Mariam’s grant, says that receiving this sort of undergraduate research fellowship is quite rare at the University of Oregon.

"We have had undergraduate students involved in our research studies for course credit, but this is the first time a student has received a paid fellowship award, working 40 hours a week in our lab,” she said. "The award is intended to be mutually beneficial to the student, and the project. We are really excited about this opportunity!”

Born and raised in Portland to Ethiopian parents, Mariam’s background qualified her for the NIH grant, awarded to just 72 students nationwide. She is the only native Oregonian to receive the award, which is designed to introduce high school and undergraduates to the field of substance abuse and addition research by participating in research internships with some of the most distinguished National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) scientists at universities across the United States.

Specifically, she and Leve will study the role of families on childhood development. By interviewing families raised since birth in different families, they can discount the role of genetics in at-risk behaviors and focus on how family dynamics, parenting techniques, discipline and other aspects of family life come to bear on a child’s risk for substance abuse or dependence. This can lead to more effective intervention and prevention strategies for at-risk families. Though her focus will be on young children of about 7 years, Mariam also will work with teenage girls in the juvenile justice system, dovetailing with a field placement she did at a juvenile detention facility as part of the FHS program. This particular aspect of the work will show another side of the study, resulting in a comprehensive, hands-on learning experience in addition to the practical and intellectual value of the primary research, which entails a lot of transcription of interviews with young women who were in the juvenile detention facility as teens.

Mariam’s only previous exposure to research was an FHS required class covering quantitative and qualitative research methods. But what she may have lacked in research experience she made up for by being familiar, for better or worse, with the populations she’s working with.

“I was born in inner-city Portland, so I grew up around a lot of high-risk families. At the time, of course, I didn’t know what a high-risk family was … Then I came into FHS and that’s when I really started learning about development and those types of things. That’s how I got interested and started learning more,” she said. “Other than that, I had personal experience with people who live in high-risk families, and now I can look back and kind of map out why people went the route that they did … I didn’t know how much experience I had until I got here.”

Though Leve is fully engaged with the research, Mariam is working with a high degree of autonomy. As an undergrad, Leve said the whole experience will help open all sorts of possibilities - not just academically, but in her career.

"This experience will be an excellent addition to her resume, and will make her more competitive for future career opportunities, whether they be working in a social service setting, or pursuing higher education such as a Master’s degree or a PhD,” she added. "It is increasingly attractive to social service agencies to have employees who understand and have experience with research, because more and more, funding for services is dependent upon an agency’s ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. This is done through careful research and evaluation, and Mariam will be learning just the skill set needed for this!"