Faculty Spotlight – Marie-Claude Couture

Marie-Claude Couture is an Associate Professor and Chair of Health Professions in the School of Nursing and Health Professions. Dr. Couture was recently awarded two large NIH grants to support her research on infectious disease prevention, substance use and violence and victimization. In collaboration with fellow USF faculty, Dr. Erin Grinshteyn, Dr. Couture was awarded a R15 in 2022 to support their project, “Determining the causal pathways of social and environmental predictors of high-risk alcohol drinking among college students.” These awards are highly competitive, with a success rate between 4-17% and are used to promote research opportunities at educational institutions that have not been previously major recipients of NIH support.The award provides $432,136 from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to the team over three years to support their research on the determinants of high-risk alcohol consumption among college students. 

In our conversation, we talk with Dr. Couture about the research she plans to lead with support from this R15 award and her plans for future research at USF. 

How long have you been at USF and what brought you here?

I arrived in 2013, coming from University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow in HIV prevention research and global health. At the time, the Masters of Public Health (MPH) program was just launching, and I wanted the chance to teach more and help build this program from the ground up.

Prior to joining USF, I was an online instructor for a continuing education program at the Public Health Agency of Canada while completing my PhD at Université de Montréal. I taught a range of online epidemiology courses for healthcare professionals. There was a real need for this type of training during this time, due to the emerging SARS epidemic, which really affected Toronto, Canada in 2003. We had 361 cases in the city with a 9% death rate. It was clear at the start that many healthcare professionals were not well prepared to respond to this health emergency, and so there was a real need to teach epidemiology and basic public health courses for all healthcare professionals. 

In addition to wanting more opportunities to teach, I was drawn to USF due to the attention the university pays to social justice. My HIV prevention research in global health often involves addressing health disparities and working with underserved communities, and this was important for continuing my research program.

Can you tell us about your research program and how it has evolved recently?

My research focuses on the intersection of substance use, violence and infectious disease transmission. Originally, my research career started with HIV prevention among marginalized and underserved populations, including drug users and sex workers. Since drug and alcohol use are major drivers of sexually transmitted infections, like HIV, my work naturally included these risk factors. As my HIV prevention work continued, I began detecting major overlaps with violence and victimization, particularly among sex workers. These issues intersect and represent my major interests and current research work.

I have always been interested in infectious diseases. I started in microbiology, with a Bachelor in Microbiology from Universite Laval, then continued with a Master in Biochemistry focusing on molecular biology from McGill University. When an opportunity presented itself to pursue my PhD in epidemiology at the University of Montreal with a team working in global health and HIV prevention, it seemed to really fit. I had the opportunity to conduct research and perform data collection in the field for my research projects with female sex workers and other vulnerable populations, including Cambodia, Thailand, Haiti, Ghana, Zambia, and Côte d’Ivoire. I have a lot of great stories from some of these crazy data collection experiences – come talk to me sometime about it!

Going forward, I plan to continue to look at the effect of victimization and violence on substance use and mental health which brought me to my current R15 work.

Can you tell us about your recent R15? What is an R15 and what work will you be doing with this award?

This grant is based on preliminary results that we got from a CRASE Interdisciplinary Action Group (IAG). In 2017, the IAG gave us a $300 award to address health post-Trump administration on mental health and substance use in college students. The title of the project was, “title was “Trumping fear: The impact of the new administration on fear and mental health sequelae among college students.”  In collaboration with Drs. Erin Grinshteyn and Dellanira Garcia from the School of Nursing and Health Professions, we looked at different forms of fear (victimization, discrimination, deportation) during the Trump administration and their effects on mental health and substance use. From this small IAG award, we published 5 peer-reviewed articles and had 13 presentations at conferences. We also used the findings as preliminary results to secure our R15 from the National Institutes of Health NIH.

An R15 is a grant awarded by the NIH to support non-research universities and to mentor graduate students in research. Our NIH R15 is titled “Determining the causal pathways of social and environmental predictors of high-risk alcohol drinking among college students” and is  $432,136 for 3 years. Dr. Erin Grinshteyn is a Co-PI on the project with me and this is a partnership with the GIS Spatial Analysis Lab in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Through this work, we hope to identify where, when, how, and with whom college students experience violence and victimization and how that impacts high risk alcohol drinking. Measuring behaviors and experiences is difficult, because they are subject to recall bias and other errors. One of the novel aspects of this project is that we are using ecological momentary assessment to follow students for 30 days and collect data on victimization and violence and alcohol use in real-time using a mobile app. Using the mobile app, we will also collect geospatial data to track where they are (e.g., what we call their “activity space”) and to identify their location when violence or victimization experiences and alcohol use happen. The GIS Spatial Analysis Lab will use the GPS coordinates from the app along with google street view to examine the environment and apply a scale to determine physical disorder, crimes, and other neighborhood-level disadvantages. This way we can connect neighborhood-level information on crime and physical disorder with substance use behavior and violence or victimization – thereby addressing structural and environmental issues through geographic information. 

We’re excited to give USF graduate students the opportunity to gain research experience through this R15. We plan to involve students in the data collection and analyses for this project, who will help us implement some of our surveys. 

What are your plans for the future?

Get more grants! Do more research! In the future, I’d really like to find more opportunities to collaborate with faculty across the university –  both within our school and across other schools. I would like to share our expertise on geospatial ecological momentary assessment with other faculty interested to use this methodology for their projects. I value interdisciplinary collaboration and would like to find other topics and research areas to collaborate.

I’d also like to continue to progress my research program on substance abuse and mental health and bring in some aspects of COVID-19. Stemming from our R15-funded work, I’d also like to work toward securing future funding to continue to learn from our geospatial ecological momentary assessment findings and to develop interventions to address substance use among college students.