2022 Alum's Research Program Selected for National Institute on Drug Abuse's Innovation Corp - University of Houston
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Alum's Research Program Selected for National Institute on Drug Abuse's Innovation Corp


February 2, 2022

(HOUSTON, TX) - Micki Washburn (PhD '15), who currently serves as Assistant Professor at the University of Texas Arlington's School of Social Work, has been selected to participate in the National Institute on Drug Abuse's Innovation Corps. (NIDA I-Corp)

The goal of the Innovation Corps is to offer "hands-on, real-world training to turn scientists into entrepreneurs by assisting in developing business plans, reaching their potential customers, and effectively demonstrating the value of their innovation."

We spoke to Micki Washburn about the importance of this opportunity to her research and why large-scale drug policies are an issue that can impact the lives of social workers and the communities they serve. 


Name: Micki Washburn, PhD
Pronouns: she/hers/ella
Graduation from the GCSW: PhD 2015

Congrats on being accepted to participate in the NIDA's Innovation Corps program to develop research ideas into viable commercial products. What will this opportunity mean for your current research in VR cue exposure software? 

This product can potentially move the field of addiction treatment forward by providing a novel evidence-based behavioral health intervention that is fully customizable and can be updated repeatedly without external programming support. 

The product that we are developing and testing addresses many of the limitations of prior VR-based intervention approaches to treat substance use disorders (SUDs).

You are an alum of the PhD program at the GCSW and served as faculty before your current position at UT-Arlington. Was there a moment during that time that was particularly influential on your career/research path? 

I was allowed to be the Virtual Reality Clinical Research Lab coordinator at the GCSW when my mentor at UH, Dr. Patrick Bordnick, became the Dean of the Tulane School of Social Work. Having the responsibility of running an NIH-funded clinical trial and all that this entails helped develop my grant writing, project management, and leadership skills that I could draw from when I sought my own NIH research funding. 

Now I am leading an NIH-funded research team at the University of Texas at Arlington. My team and I hope to develop a new research center focusing on developing innovative treatments for co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders very soon. 

Your VR cue exposure software aims to treat opioid use disorder and/or polysubstance use disorder. What about these disorders are the most misunderstood by the general public, and why do you think these misunderstandings exist? 

Generally speaking, the most negatively impactful misunderstanding that the general public has about addictions is that people living with addiction are "bad" people. There is often a perception that if those suffering from addiction just tried harder, they could stop misusing substances. However, current science tells us that willpower and peer support alone are not sufficient for 90% of people with addictions to reach long-term recovery. The best chance for individuals with substance use disorders to achieve long-term recovery is for them to have access to medications for addiction treatment (MAT) in conjunction with evidence-based behavioral interventions and peer support. 

I think misunderstandings around substance use disorders and their treatment are a byproduct of two things: the "moral model" of addiction, which has persisted since the 1800s and asserts that addiction is a character deficiency rather than a neurobiological and psychosocial condition, and also the belief that peer-based support alone is sufficient "treatment" for addictions. 12-step and other programs based on the Minnesota model are helpful for some people. Still, within those programs, there is often a tradition of stigmatizing the use of medications that assist with mental health conditions and/or addiction treatment. There is often "blaming and shaming" of people who relapse. 

From my experience, these ideologies have impeded the widespread adoption and implementation of evidence-based treatment approaches. Unfortunately, they have also guided drug policy globally and in the US. Policies that mandate abstinence-only interventions versus those that include harm reduction, along with the criminalization of substance use, and incarceration instead of treatment exacerbate the ongoing opioid and methamphetamine epidemics that we see here in Texas and beyond.

Why do you think a social worker's perspective is critical in addressing and remedying addiction disorders/crises? 

Social workers are in the unique position to address the needs of people with addictions because we value the dignity and worth of all individuals and support the right to self-determination. No one intervention approach works for everyone, and the truth is that some people with addictions may not ever stop completely using all substances. However, we can support them and teach them strategies to decrease the negative impacts of substance use on their health, their loved ones, and society overall.

The GCSW aims to equip its students and alums with the tools and knowledge to strive for social justice at all levels. Why are goals like this critical to social work research like yours? 

People with addictions are often the most misunderstood and stigmatized individuals social workers interact with within their careers. Often, those suffering from addiction lack access to adequate treatment due to structural inequities that persist in our society related to economics and other factors such as racial/ethnic identity, documentation status, sexual orientation, and gender identity (SOGIE). We have seen the injustice that has resulted from the mass incarceration of Americans (particularly among African Americans and Hispanic/Latino Americans) for non-violent drug-related offenses and the impact that this has had on families and communities. As social workers, we have an ethical responsibility to increase equity for those from historically marginalized groups. My work focuses on developing evidence-based intervention approaches that are affordable and accessible to various clients and can be easily integrated into currently existing systems of care.

Anything else you would like to share?

I hope to continue extending my research on the treatment of opioid addiction by pursuing a new line of research focusing on the clinical use of marijuana to treat mental health and substance use disorders. I sincerely hope that the federal government will remove the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, implying that it has no documented medical benefit. From a harm-reduction standpoint, this would have great potential to move the field forward in pain management and treatment of mental health conditions such as anxiety and PTSD. However, since marijuana is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, researchers like myself cannot easily engage in research to determine the safety and effectiveness of marijuana to treat a variety of medical conditions.