Nothing in excess

R. Lorraine Collins studies the reasons behind substance abuse

3034425-1234756297_sm_1400790675_sm_14007906751
The Spectrum

R. Lorraine Collins is known as a compassionate, groundbreaking psychologist, and recently, her accolades have surrounded two things: marijuana and research.

Collins, associate dean for research in the School of Public Health and Health Professions, focuses on alcohol and marijuana use among 18- to 25-year-olds in her projects. Her current nationally funded grant is focused on physical activity and marijuana use.

Her role as associate dean includes encouraging and supporting research, increasing research capabilities and providing mentoring to faculty and students within the UB community.

Her first influence to pursue psychology came when she was in high school, in which she had an opportunity to tutor elementary school students who had learning problems and psychological issues.

Now, she is a trained and licensed clinical psychologist but does not see patients. She enjoys the research aspect much more.

"I like the intellectual stimulation of doing research," Collins said. "Thinking about questions that you'd like to know more [about], setting up studies that will allow you to get answers to the questions ... running studies, finding out information and sharing it with your colleagues and the rest of the world. That's the most appealing part of psychology as far as I'm concerned."

Collins wants to understand what factors contribute to drug use and what kinds of consequences people experience in order to help young people navigate their use without having severe problems.

She sees substance abuse as an issue of self-control, drawing a comparison between drugs and food. She claims food has the same possibility to harm as drugs if used incorrectly.

"If you eat moderately, you are probably going to be healthy," Collins said. "If you eat to excess and you become obese, then you are going to have all types of medical problems. What I try to understand is: if people are going to use this substance, how can they use it in a moderate way ... so that they don't become addicted."

Collins finds individuals for her projects through flyers, advertisements and friends of current participants. The researchers do not decide who participates based on demographic characteristics like gender or ethnicity; they focus their research on the participants' ages and the level at which the individuals engage in the behavior.

Collins' work focuses on young adults because she said it's a time where people are experimenting with new roles in life, like leaving for college.

"They're trying to find the balance between independence and freedom and adult responsibilities or lack of adult responsibilities," Collins said.

Participants are insured confidentiality through certificates from the federal government, and gathered data is linked to numbers instead of names, Collins said. She said confidentiality is essential because some participants are engaging in illegal behaviors.

She was driven to pursue marijuana after doing research on malt liquor. Collins said half of the malt liquor users in her sample were also regular marijuana users.

"That's the fun part of research: you ask a question, [then] you find an answer to that question and it leads to another question," Collins said.

To help her finding answers to such questions, Collins uses cellphone-based technology called ecological momentary assessment (EMA). The key to EMA is being able to get data in real time instead of retrospective data that is not reliable, Collins said.

She has been using this approach since the '90s with personal digital assistants. Now, participants use cellphones to call into a server and answer questions regarding their mood before and after drinking and social factors when drinking, she said.

Paula Vincent, the project director for Collins' grant, supports this tech-based strategy.

"She's really pioneered the use of [EMA]," Vincent said. "She's been at the forefront of this type of research in the field of addictions and she's always pushing technology to the edge. We are going beyond pen and pencil."

Collins hasn't just garnered praise because of her dedication to her craft; she's also known for her compassion. Sandy Wilson, the project coordinator for Collins' grant, said that when Collins needs to dismiss staff because of lack of funding, she always tries to find another position for them elsewhere.

Vincent recalled a time when she had been working with Collins for less than a year and became pregnant with her first child.

"She barely knew me ... and she threw me a baby shower before my own mother did," Vincent said. "She came to my house and set everything up. But that's just the type of person she is."

Moving forward, Collins wants to continue her job as the associate dean and help the school to build on its research successes.

Email: features@ubspectrum.com