COBE Researcher Wins Genetics and Human Agency Award

small-jessicaThe Genetics and Human Agency Initiative recently gave a Junior Investigator award to COBE researcher Dr. Jessica Salvatore, Assistant Professor in the VCU Department of Psychology and the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

The goal of the Genetics and Human Agency Initiative, which is funded by the John Templeton Foundation, is to bring together empirical scientists and philosophers to tackle the question of how to make sense of complex human behavior in the context of a realistic understanding of human behavioral genetics.

With the support of a Junior Investigator award, Dr. Salvatore plans to describe the current state of genetically informative research for relationship outcomes, with a particular eye toward the conceptual and analytical models needed to understand how partners’ genetic predispositions unfold in the context of one another.

Dr. Salvatore’s general research interests include using genetically informative designs to understand the interplay between genetic factors and close relationship factors in the onset, persistence, and discontinuity of alcohol misuse.

As a part of her project she will maintain a blog on her research website, and will make quarterly posts on aspects of her work, with the goal of engaging academic and non-academic audiences in discussions about how to study emergent properties of relationships using genetically informative designs.

Her mentor for the project is Dr. Ken Kendler, Banks Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, and Professor of Human and Molecular Genetics at the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics, Virginia Commonwealth University.

The Links Between Hooking Up and Risky Drinking Are Not What You Think

Group of friends sitting with beers in their hands

Is there a link between frequent hook ups and risky drinking?

Yes — some of the same background factors that lead people to casually date also inform their risk for problem alcohol use.

In a paper entitled “The Role of Romantic Relationship Status in Pathways of Risk for Emerging Adult Alcohol Use” published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors in 2016, COBE researchers led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Jessica Salvatore explored the ways that parental drinking, hooking up and risky drinking are all connected.

“Dating several partners isn’t just a random thing that people do that’s related to how much they drink,” Salvatore said. “Dating several partners is part of a pathway of alcohol risk factors that starts with having a parent with an alcohol problem, exhibiting conduct problems in adolescence, and having a personality type that lends toward doing rash things when feeling good. Having these risk factors makes one more likely to engage in casual dating patterns, which in turn is associated with higher alcohol use.”

Background Information

Prior studies have shown that relationship status as a young adult impacts different health outcomes including alcohol use and misuse. For example, an earlier study by COBE researchers found that VCU first-year students who said they were dating multiple partners drank more on average than their peers who were single or in committed relationships.

But this study did not focus on the specific pathway that these variables operate through. How do people wind up dating several partners? Are the risk factors that lead someone to date multiple partners also putting people at risk for alcohol misuse?


Salvatore and her team produced three hypotheses about what risk factors might contribute to the link between dating multiple partners and alcohol use.

  1. A parental history of alcohol problems would predict a higher likelihood of dating several people.
  2. A parental history of alcohol problems would have indirect effects on the likelihood of dating several people via elevations in conduct problems and positive urgency (i.e., doing rash things while feeling good).
  3. These alcohol risk factors would have indirect effects on alcohol use via dating several people.

Research Methods

To learn more about the exact relationship between these experiences, researchers used the data set generated by Spit for Science, a university-wide research project at VCU featuring data from thousands of students over the course of their college careers.

From their early months as freshmen through their senior year and beyond, students fill out surveys that allow researchers to explore many different aspects of the undergraduate experience at VCU.

For this study, participants were asked about their parental history of alcohol problems, high school conduct problems, relationship status, positive urgency (doing impulsive things while feeling good–like excitedly jumping off a balcony at a party) and alcohol use at the beginning and end of their freshmen year.

Pathways to Risk

Researchers found that a parent’s drinking does not have a direct effect on dating multiple people, but it does have an indirect effect through other pathways, as shown in the model below.


The top pathway shows that parental alcohol problems are linked to high school conduct problems, which are in turn associated with dating several people and increases in alcohol use. This suggests that dating several people is part of a broader deviance proneness pathway, which is one of the most well-studied and robust pathways for alcohol misuse.

The central premise of the deviance proneness model is that alcohol misuse reflects a long-standing susceptibility to disinhibited behavior that begins to manifest as deviant behavior in childhood and adolescence. This proneness to deviance expresses itself both in the predilection toward casual dating and risky alcohol use.

The bottom pathway again starts with parental alcohol problems but the intermediate variable is positive urgency, or a tendency on the part of an individual to behave rashly in response to positive emotions in order to prolong or intensify them.

This is called the positive affect regulation pathway, which is driven by emotionality characteristics that are associated with the use of alcohol for its positive reinforcing effects (i.e. feeling good) and is closely tied to perceiving alcohol use as rewarding. This predisposition to impulsivity while in a good mood expresses itself both in the tendency toward casual dating and risky alcohol use.


Contrary to researchers’ expectations, a parental history of alcohol did not have a direct association with dating several people. However, as their second and third hypotheses predicted, there was an indirect effect of parental alcohol problems on dating multiple people via both the deviance proneness pathway and the positive affect regulation pathway.

Limitations of this study included the fact that the sample survey was limited to college students and may not generalize directly to non-college emerging adults, reliance on self-reporting and retrospective measures, evidence that those with high levels of alcohol use and conduct problems were less likely to complete follow-up surveys and the lack of direct evidence that dating several people directly causes an increase in alcohol use.

These pathways show that relationship experiences are part of pathways of familial and individual-level risk factors for alcohol use that begin early in life and extend through adolescence and emerging adulthood.

Bottom Line

For Students – If you have a tendency toward positive urgency or deviant behavior, be aware that these habits can express themselves in many different facets of your life including relationships and alcohol use. There is no value judgment placed on having these traits. They can be positive or negative depending on how you leverage them. It is just important to know yourself and be honest about who you are so that you can continue to find ways to thrive.

For Parents – It is always important to talk with your children about substance use and relationships. If you have experienced alcohol use problems in the past or see traits of impulsivity and/or deviance in your children, it is even more important to do so in order to help them successfully navigate their college experiences.

For Practitioners/Professionals – The strongest path shown in this study was the connection between conduct problems in adolescents and dating multiple people in college.  Professionals working with young adults that have a history of conduct problems should also be aware of increased likelihood of relationship challenges for their clients in addition to substance use related problems.

For ResearchersRelationship experiences are part of a network of familial and individual-level risk factors for alcohol use that begin early in life and extend through adolescence and emerging adulthood. In emerging adulthood, it may be particularly important to consider “non-traditional” relationship statuses such as dating several partners to understand the associations between relationship experiences and alcohol use. This is especially relevant given the rise of dating apps such as Tinder, which makes it easier than ever to connect with potential partners.

How COBE Helps Students THRIVE

THRIVE students participate in the Free Ice Water project at The Depot.


Transitioning from high school to college is one of the most profound shifts in a young person’s life. Successfully navigating the mixture of freedoms and responsibilities, anticipation and anxiety, leisure and stress when you arrive at a university can be difficult even for the most diligent of people.

But COBE is here to support Rams during this integral phase of their lives.

This year COBE and The Well launch THRIVE, a living-learning community comprised of around 40 freshmen housed in Rhoads Hall.

By integrating research, teaching and programming into an action-packed living experience, THRIVE helps students learn how to make the most out of their college years and lead healthy, prosperous lives.

As a program-in-residence,
THRIVE melds research, academics and life outside of the classroom through:


  •    Priority enrollment in a three-credit class called The Science of Happiness, taken in the fall or spring, focused on research-based promotion of well-being.  The class is team taught by faculty experts and students learn about how to set themselves up for success – all while earning course credit!
  •    Programming collaboratively developed by our faculty and Residence Assistants, Falon and Eric, focused on health and wellbeing such as healthy eating and yoga.
  •    Mentorship and special opportunities provided by Faculty like Fireside Chats to get to know students outside the classroom.
  •    Wellness focused events created with student input and ideas.
  •    The opportunity to be a part of a paid research study that will examine the effectiveness of the program.
  •    Graduates receive a completion certificate at the end of the year! 

THRIVE students participate in the Free Ice Water event with artist John Freyer.

After hosting our launch party during move-in weekend and an art project entitled
Free Ice Water created by VCU School of the Arts professor John Fryer, recurring programming kicks off with THRIVE yoga sessions led by Kamini Pahuja on September 14th.

THRIVE yoga is open to all students, faculty and staff as we encourage everyone to take time out of their day to be mindful and present. Sessions will occur every Wednesday from 4-5 pm in the Brandt Community Room.

Stay tuned for more information about events and ways to get involved throughout the year! And as always, make it real!!


For more details, email

Episode 5 – Opioids and Cannabinoids with Dr. Tricia Smith

Welcome back to Why Science! In this episode Dr. Tricia Smith, a researcher and biology instructor at VCU, discusses her work with opioids and cannabinoids and her undergraduate course focusing on drugs of abuse.

Why Science is a podcast about behavioral and emotional health research at Virginia Commonwealth University. During each episode we welcome a new guest from VCU to discuss their work ranging from substance use to stress, mindfulness to empathy and everything in between.

Why Science is produced in partnership with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the ALT Lab at VCU and WVCW Student Radio. Each episode is hosted, recorded and edited by COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo.

COBE Welcome Address


COBE student volunteers promote the group at the 2016 Ram Spirit Walk during Welcome Week.


We’re so excited to start our first academic school year with COBE recognized as an official VCU Institute!

COBE emphasizes well-being as the foundation of student success. We aim to create opportunities for collaboration among researchers, for dissemination of research in creative ways and for translation of the research into coursework and programming for our students in collaboration with divisions across the university.

We are here to keep you informed, and to invite you to be a part of initiatives that interest you.  

Here’s a quick run-down of some of the exciting COBE initiatives.


The Science of Happiness (SoH):  Faculty from multiple departments with expertise in substance use and mental health challenges, as well as the promotion of well-being, came together to develop and team teach a new class last Spring.  The SoH course introduces students to the science and research behind well-being practices and teaches them skills they can apply to their own lives.  This fall we will offer a 3 credit version, as well as a new 1 credit version in partnership with the Honors college as a required course for incoming honors freshmen. You can still sign up today!  (CRN 34272)

COBE Connect Lunch Series:  Please join us the first Tuesday of every month at noon in the Student Commons for FREE LUNCH and a speaker related to health and well-being, ranging from faculty researchers to other members of the university and surrounding community doing innovative work in this area.  The first COBE Connect Lunch is Sept 6 with Glen Moriarty founder and CEO of 7 Cups of Tea in the Alumni Board Room of the Student Commons at noon. Find out more about the event by following COBE on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or signing up for our newsletter in the footer of our website.


COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick addresses students at the Thrive Launch Party.


THRIVE Living-Learning Community:  THRIVE is a partnership with Residential Life and Housing to create research-backed, health and wellness themed living-learning experience for freshmen.   Students in THRIVE (two designated floors in Rhoads Hall) will take the Science of Happiness course and have programming in their residence hall themed around the promotion of well-being in collaboration with the Wellness Resource Center.  You can still join THRIVE! Email Tom Bannard at for more info.

Why Science? Podcast:   Developed by our COBE Digital Media Specialist Craig Zirpolo, these bi-monthly podcasts available through spotlight research on behavioral health going on at the university.

1 Group Photo

Attendees and instructors at the Spit for Science Research Boot-Camp.


Spit for Science Research Class and Boot-Camp:   We continue to offer the Spit for Science research class each semester for undergraduates to learn about the research process and develop a team project using Spit for Science data under the mentorship of graduate students and postdocs.  Additionally, we ran a week-long intensive “research bootcamp” for 21 students this summer.  These undergraduate students are trained to use the S4S codebook and in basic analytic skills.

COBE Annual Symposium:  Last year’s theme “Substance Use in Young People: From Research to Recovery” drew more than 300 people for two days of presentations from faculty, practitioners, and students.  This year we are partnering with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to grow this event even further.  Mark your calendar for April 18-19!

If you would like to be involved in any of these initiatives, or if you have other ideas about ways we can grow behavioral health research and translational applications, please let us know!

Actions to Take for Those with an Addicted Loved One

Photo courtesy of VCU News

Photo courtesy of VCU News

By Tom Bannard

A mentor of mine always says that one of the most powerful forces on earth is inertia.  That objects in motion tend to stay in motion, while still objects tend to stay still.  As a family member, it is incredibly difficult to move yourself and your loved one towards recovery, and it is often unclear what the correct action is.  I would suggest that starting to move is the most important action.  These recommendations are stated in no particular order, but I hope will give you some ideas on ways that you can get the momentum going towards recovery.

Get Educated
Two books to start with:
Get Your Loved One Sober- Robert Myers
Love First – Jeff Jay and Deborah Jay

Don’t like reading?  Take a course or watch videos:
Pleasure Unwoven & Memo to Self are great places to start.  Both are available on
Take a course on Community Reinforcement And Family Training (CRAFT)-

Attend the Family Education Program
Meets every Thursday Night at 6:30 PM at 563 Southlake Blvd., Richmond, VA.  Different Addiction and Recovery focused topic weekly.  The group is free, email to get on our mailing list

Read up on Recovery & Change – Dr. John Kelly is a Harvard researcher who studies recovery.  The site has great science but is geared towards readability. – Wonderful history and writings about the modern recovery movement.
Center for Motivation and Change Blog 

Get Support
Individual counseling is often very helpful for families as they navigate very difficult circumstances.
12 step groups such as Al-Anon (, Nar-Anon(, and Families Anonymous ( offer mutual aid support to families.
Additionally, SMART Recovery offers online family meetings:
Northstar Community is a Christian community that focuses on recovery.  It is an open and accepting, un-churchy church.
Celebrate Recovery is a Christian based recovery program, which is used by many faith communities of different denominations.

Arm Yourself with Resources
Unfortunately, there are insufficient resources in our community to treat all the people who need treatment.  Families who can educate themselves on the most effective resources have the greatest chance of getting their loved one into effective treatment.  While this post will not include suggestions about individual facilities or providers, it is worth finding several people who have “no skin in the game” to get some recommendations from or find an interventionist whose job it is to know these resources.  I am happy to provide individual lists on a case by case basis, email

Get to Know the Treatment Options
Inpatient Detox
Intensive Outpatient
Short-Term Inpatient Treatment (Less than 30 days)
Long Term Inpatient Treatment (60 days or more)
Recovery Housing
Continuing Care Support

Know What You Can Afford
If inpatient treatment is needed, find out what if anything is covered by insurance.
Always ask, what is the maximum out of pocket expense?  Try to get as much as you can in writing.
Talk to your insurance company, try to get treatment preapproved.  Find out what they cover.

Grill the Inpatient Facilities
You are spending a lot of money on treatment, ask questions.
What is the average length of stay?
What do you do to connect them with follow up support?
Do you provide continuing care support?  What are your outcomes?
Do most clients step down into recovery houses?
How is the family involved in treatment?  Do you have a family program?
What is your facility’s particular strength?  Why is my loved one a good fit?
What other facilities would you suggest that I look at for my loved one?

A few things to look for…
Do they really treat addiction as a chronic illness?  This means long-term treatment.  If they are a 30 day provider, what do they do to match the patient with long term support.  What do they suggest if there is relapse?
Clinical Humility – If they say they do everything, chances are they are not particularly good at anything.  If they are able to identify the things that they do particularly well (Ie. We are really good with young adults, or professionals, or trauma etc.), and it matches the need for your loved one that is good.  If they don’t have contacts at other facilities, beware.
They should offer support to families and it should be free.
They should have clear and meaningful outcomes, and if they don’t they should admit it.  They should be able to send you a document that outlines their outcomes and their methods of measuring them.  Treatment providers are finally moving in this direction but they are not there yet.  Asking this question of all providers is a way of advocating for better treatment in the future.

Buckle Up for the Long Haul
Addiction is a chronic disease that must be managed.  Your loved one will need to learn to manage his or her disease over the long term.  The majority of people will not find recovery the first time they seek help.  This does not mean that treatment was a failure.
Recovery is not binary – People tend to think of addiction in very black and white terms, Not drinking using=success, drinking/using=failure.     This can be problematic as it leads to the oversimplification “He can just not use and he’ll be fine.”  Recovery is about a life style change, and happens slowly over a long period of time.  Often people have a slip or a lapse during that time.  Family member’s ability to respond compassionately, yet firmly during these lapses can make all the difference in recovery.
30 days of recovery is barely a start.  The vast majority of people need a number of long term recovery supports to be successful with long-term recovery.  For many people, Alcoholics Anonymous,  Narcotics Anonymous SMART Recovery or Celebrate Recovery serves this purpose, but other supports can be critical to augmenting this support.  Length of engagement is incredibly important in predicting recovery outcomes.  

This can include…
Recovery Housing

Employment support (Through EAP Programs, Lawyers Helping Lawyers, Physicians Help Programs)
Recovery Coaching
Individual Therapy
Intensive Outpatient
Group Therapy
SMART Recovery
Alcoholics Anonymous
Narcotics Anonymous
Celebrate Recovery
Refuge Recovery

Look at Crisis as an Opportunity
With your loved one’s next crisis, look for opportunities to get them into treatment.  Most people are ambivalent about change most of the time.  Looking for windows of opportunity to engage people in positive change helps get people into treatment and start the road to recovery.

COBE Town Hall Introduction Address


On April 14th and 15th at Virginia Commonwealth University COBE hosted “From Research to Rehab: A Town Hall Meeting on Substance Use and Young People.” Over 300 researchers, practitioners, interventionists, family members, students and members of the recovery community gathered to engage in dialogue around how to understand and best care for those suffering from addiction.

Tom Bannard, administrative director of COBE and director of Rams in Recovery, gave this address at the opening of the town hall meeting.

Tonight more than 300 people have gathered to look for a path forward to address substance use among young people.  I would guess that many came here by their seat honestly, or as the saying goes, most of us don’t get to places like this on a winning streak.

Regardless of what brought each of us to this particular room at this particular time, I think that most of us are here because some part of us believes that we need to do better in how we deal with substances in our bodies, in our families, in our work, or in our communities.  That we are looking for courage to change the conditions that we cannot accept.

As citizens, we have participated and become complicit in creating laws based in prejudice and fear, that have destroyed communities of color while ensuring that punishment would be our default approach to battling addiction.

In our communities, we have defaulted to prevention of substance use problems through shame and scare tactics, with little care or understanding of the ineffectiveness of these approaches.

As professionals, we have too often relied on myths about “hitting bottom” or blaming clients for their relapse, while we have failed to create the structures adequate to ensure their success.

As Universities, we have failed to make our research real.  We have been complicit in systems that reward silos of research, in which researchers’ primary audience is each other.

As people in recovery, we have failed to break down barriers of stigma through advocacy, and too often we become overly attached to our particular path to recovery, and we are too quick to dismiss relapse as lack of willingness or effort as though we are experts on other’s lives.

To this day Father Bill from the Caron Foundation has the best description of addiction I have ever heard.   Addiction robs us of the capacity to have intimate lasting relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with a higher purpose until the most important relationship in our lives is with the substance itself.

Because substance use so strongly impacts the capacity of individuals to make choices, substance users often damage our communities in deep and lasting ways.  It can tear apart families and hurt children, and it can leave all of us baffled and frustrated.

Addiction has done well at tearing us apart and separating us into silos, but we are starting our own journey to recovery.  We are slowly turning the ship.

We are united in a common belief that maintaining the status quo is just not good enough, that we have to do better.

With our vote and our voice we are moving our society towards a focus on treatment and recovery.

In the area of prevention, more high schools are copying insights from impactful work done on college campuses like VCU.

In treatment, we are moving towards standards of care and long term outcomes monitoring that allow families to have a truer prognosis of the challenge and opportunity of recovery.

As family members, we are finding time to show up to places to learn about addiction and recovery, to support our loved ones, and find our own paths to healing.

As Universities, we are finding new ways for research to reach the hands of the people who need it most.

As members of the recovery community, we are beginning to embrace our allies and advocate for those coming behind us in ways that are unprecedented.

If we are willing to look more deeply at ourselves, addiction forces each of us to decide what kind of society we want to be.  

Will we be a society that insists on punishment and justice, that shames and washes our hands of human beings?

Or will we be a society that shares responsibility, that empathizes, that forgives, that heals?

The path forward must come from researchers, practitioners and people with lived experience. We must all arm ourselves with the knowledge that we need to make better decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities.

But more importantly I hope that we can start to believe that change is possible for us, for our loved ones, and for people in our community who are struggling.  That we can make meaningful changes in the way we treat substance use in our society, and by doing so, we will not only save lives, but we will restore relationships.

Tom Bannard is the administrative Director for COBE and the Program Coordinator for Rams in Recovery.  He is also a person in long-term recovery.


Episode 4 – Collegiate Recovery Programs and Research Translation with Tom Bannard

Welcome back to Why Science! In this episode we speak with Rams in Recovery Director Tom Bannard who discusses his journey to recovery, the importance of collegiate recovery programs and how he translates substance use research from colleagues at VCU to inform his work with students in recovery.

Why Science is a podcast about behavioral and emotional health research at Virginia Commonwealth University. During each episode we welcome a new guest from VCU to discuss their work ranging from substance use to stress, mindfulness to empathy and everything in between.

Why Science is produced in partnership with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the ALT Lab at VCU and WVCW Student Radio. Each episode is hosted, recorded and edited by COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo.

Episode 3 – Vaping, Hookah and Tobacco Alternatives with Dr. Caroline Cobb

Welcome back to Why Science! In Episode 3 we are joined by Dr. Caroline Cobb, an assistant professor and alternative tobacco researcher who discusses the similarities and differences in health outcomes between smoking hookah, e-cigarettes and traditional cigarettes.

Why Science is a podcast about behavioral and emotional health research at Virginia Commonwealth University. During each episode we welcome a new guest from VCU to discuss their work ranging from substance use to stress, mindfulness to empathy and everything in between.

Why Science is produced in partnership with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the ALT Lab at VCU and WVCW Student Radio. Each episode is hosted, recorded and edited by COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo.

Episode 2 – Substance Use and Health Policy with Dr. Andrew Barnes

Welcome back to Why Science! In this episode we speak with Assistant Professor and health policy researcher Dr. Andrew Barnes to learn more about what decisions factor into choosing an insurance plan and how his background in HIV policy research led to working with his students to address the opioid crisis in Virginia.

Why Science is a podcast about behavioral and emotional health research at Virginia Commonwealth University. During each episode we welcome a new guest from VCU to discuss their work ranging from substance use to stress, mindfulness to empathy and everything in between.

Why Science is produced in partnership with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the ALT Lab at VCU and WVCW Student Radio. Each episode is hosted, recorded and edited by COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo.

Why I Run Up the Stairs at Work


Chris Budnick and Tom Bannard recording a “Tub Talk” podcast for J3, Chris’ series on the recovery movement.


Tom Bannard is a Certified Alcohol Drug Counselor, who will finish his MBA from VCU in May.  Tom wants to change the way we view substance use in America.  He is COBE’s “Emotional Guy”, and sometimes he struggles to understand big, academic, science words.

At the end of October, I started a new job at VCU split between running the Collegiate Recovery Program and serving as the Administrative Director for COBE.  It’s an awesome gig with time split between working directly with students, and engaging with an awesome group of researchers.  

As a person in long term recovery from addiction, I catch myself smiling sometimes because I know it could be very different.

I spent the first 7 years of my career working at a local organization called CARITAS, a large provider of shelter, long-term recovery support, employment support, and furniture.  

CARITAS is a scrappy organization of passionate, dedicated, and humble workers who have dedicated their lives to creating opportunities for the most vulnerable.  The staff works long hours, for low pay, with many inspired by their own lived experience with addiction or homelessness or both.  Their reward is knowing that they are doing some of the hardest, most important work in our community, and they see lives transformed on a daily basis.  It was a hard place to leave.

What drew me away was the opportunity to build robust recovery supports on a college campus, and the chance to work alongside brilliant researchers who were studying the topics most of interest to me.  Additionally, the access to the tremendous resources of a major research university was incredibly exciting, especially coming from an organization whose hands were often tied by funding necessities.  It has not been disappointing.

Still, early on in the job, before our recovery program started growing, I found myself missing the urgency, the “in your face” importance of the work I had previously done.  There had been an ingrained culture of always trying to do better for our clients.  

Recently, I was moved by the way that my friend Chris Budnick put it.  Chris has been a social worker since the early 90s spending the majority of that time working at a long term recovery program for people struggling with substance use disorders who can’t access treatment.  In short he has dedicated his entire adult life to helping the most vulnerable people in our society, but the video is an amends for the things he has left undone in his professional career.  

As strong leaders do, Chris takes more than his share of the responsibility for mistakes and for what we must do about them.  I can’t help but wonder, what if more researchers felt this same responsibility for making sure that their work would make a difference in real people’s lives?

Perhaps they wouldn’t be getting failing grades for dissemination by the Chronicle for Higher Education?  Perhaps they wouldn’t use words like dissemination?  Perhaps they would find better ways to work around (or even change?!) a system that rewards publishing papers, but does not reward scaleable applications of knowledge or meaningful community engagement.  

Likewise, we might be less inclined to make incredibly poor public policy decisions that are more based on emotion than on science (See War on Drugs).  Practitioners might have fewer amends to make because they would have better access to the most promising research.  Family members might have to bury fewer of their children because they had access to the information they needed to make decisions.

This is what excites me about COBE.  We have the opportunity – no, the mandate – to get research about health and wellness in young people into the hands of the people that really need it: young people, their families, their teachers, and the practitioners who work with them.  

At our Town Hall Meeting on Young People and Substance Use coming up April 14th and 15th, we will bring together this group of “people who normally would not mix”.  Perhaps at times, the researchers will have trouble connecting, or the audience will have trouble understanding or separating lived experience from what the research says, but we need to start somewhere, and we need to be in the same room.  

We have a lot of work to do together.

Episode 1 – The State of Collegiate Mental Health with Dr. Linda Hancock

Welcome to Why Science! For our first episode we spoke with with Dr. Linda Hancock, the director of the Wellness Resource Center at VCU. Dr. Hancock discusses the state of mental health at Virginia Commonwealth University, support services available on campus and why she prefers working with students.

Why Science is a podcast about behavioral and emotional health research at Virginia Commonwealth University. During each episode we welcome a new guest from VCU to discuss their work ranging from substance use to stress, mindfulness to empathy and everything in between.

Why Science is produced in partnership with the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, the ALT Lab at VCU and WVCW Student Radio. Each episode is hosted, recorded and edited by COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo.

COBE Institute Faculty Awarded Quest Innovation Award


Amy Adkins (far left) with COBE student collaborators and COBE media specialist Craig Zirpolo (center).


quest_subbrandCongratulations to COBE’s Director of Student Engagement, Dr. Amy Adkins, who was recently awarded a Quest Innovation Award!

Along with her co-investigator, COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick, Dr. Adkins is partnering with key leaders across VCU initiatives and divisions in an effort to better understand connections between behavioral and emotional health, co-curricular engagement and student success.

To our knowledge, a project of this magnitude and scope has never been conducted before! Learn more about Dr. Adkins’ work and other winning research projects at VCU News.

The Science of Happiness


Transitioning from high school to college is a major developmental task. The challenges include independence from adult supervision, new friendships, exposure to a unique culture of academic pressure, relative freedom with access to leisure time activities that include both positive and negative elements. Anxiety/depression, problems with substance use, and mental illness often make their presence known in this period.

It can be a time of high stress and tension but also a time for unprecedented opportunity to discover strength and resilience that sets us on a positive trajectory on the stage of life.  Both professors and students have discovered that self-doubt, tension, and stress not only impede knowledge acquisition but also our capacity to flourish, i.e. to actualize our innate capacity for resilience and growth.

This course examines the state of college student mental health and wellness on a personal and systems level. This class is an opportunity to re-evaluate your beliefs, values, and assumptions, and to do so in the context of learning about the science behind health and wellness.

In this course we look at how individuals can create positive change by reinterpreting their goals and identifying steps towards having a successful experience in college and beyond. Key findings from the fields of positive psychology and the study of mental illness will inform our understanding of the biopsychosocial underpinnings of well-being.

The class seeks to reunite the current mission to cure mental and emotional distress with the exploration of how to foster more fulfilling and productive lives. We will study the whole mind, in a variety of contexts, adding a greater understanding of health to that of illness.

Learn more about the Science of Happiness on the course website.

The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute – It’s Official!

NPHC Exec with COBE

Members of the National Panhellenic Council meet COBE during a collaborative event.

By COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick

Last week the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE) received official approval from the university as the newest research institute at VCU. Institutes and Centers are formed to promote research and educational opportunities that cut across traditional disciplinary structures that exist within universities, for example, by bringing together faculty from different departments or divisions with shared interests and/or to work toward a common goal. The COBE Institute was conceptualized as an innovative way that we at VCU can address the growing rate of substance use and mental health challenges experienced by college students.  COBE brings together individuals from diverse constituencies across the campus around the topic of behavioral and emotional health.  COBE connects:

Researchers.  At VCU we are fortunate to have tremendous faculty expertise related to behavioral and emotional health, with researchers studying topics such as substance use, depression, anxiety, relationships, sleep, fitness, emotions, and much more!  These researchers are found across multiple departments and both campuses.  COBE provides an opportunity for these researchers to come together.  At the COBE website, information about researchers who study behavioral and emotional health is centralized, providing an easy way to learn about the portfolio of on-going research on health and wellness at the university.  COBE also provides opportunities for researchers to interact, such as the monthly COBE brown bag lunch series, in order to stimulate new interdisciplinary research collaborations, projects, and grants.  This will enable VCU to continue to build its international preeminence as a premier research institution with a focus on human health.

Researchers, Practitioners, and Administrators.  At COBE we want to do more than just generate research; we want to ensure that the wealth of knowledge created by researchers at VCU feeds back to benefit our students and our community.  COBE connects researchers with the faculty and staff who are involved in prevention, intervention, and service delivery related to health and wellness at the university.  COBE partners with The Wellness Resource Center to integrate research into the prevention and intervention programming related to substance use and mental health at the university and to disseminate research findings through the Stall Seat Journal.  Further, by partnering with senior leaders at VCU from the Divisions of Student Affairs and Strategic Enrollment Management, we can better evaluate how behavioral and emotional health impacts student success at the university and use this information to guide future programming.

Students.  We want students to play an active role in the conversation about well-being at the university.  COBE has create social media channels (you can follow us at VCU COBE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) to start a dialogue on mental health and wellness.  We share information about research results, both from VCU and elsewhere, related to behavioral and emotional health, and we spearhead ways for students to engage in these efforts (Motivational Mondays are coming soon!).  We partner with student groups who have a shared interest in behavioral and mental health, such as Active Minds, and we work with student groups who want to do projects to promote well-being on campus.  At the COBE website, students can also find information about ways to get involved in behavioral health research, and coursework related to health and wellness.

The Community.  One of our goals for COBE is to build collaborations with community partners who are also interested in promoting health and wellness in young people.  We are fortunate to already be working with the JHW Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about substance abuse in young adults and supports young adult recovery.  The organization was founded by John and Roz Watkins in memory of their son John Henry Watkins III who lost his life to addiction while he was a college student.  We are looking forward to building relationships with community members who are also passionate about promoting behavioral and emotional health in young people.


COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick and Dr. Jessica Salvatore record an episode of the podcast Why Science

By bringing together these diverse constituencies of individuals around the campus, COBE aims to create unique and innovative learning opportunities for our students that promote their health and well-being.  Here are some of the things we have in the works:

The Science of Happiness.  Coming this spring!  COBE faculty are teaming up to create a course that will introduce students to research on the factors that contribute to the continuum of mental health outcomes:  from substance use and emotional health challenges to flourishing and well-being.  Further, students will learn about proven techniques for improving their own health and happiness.  This course will be offered in the Spring of 2016 as a pilot course that can be used toward the required general education elective credits.

THRIVE!   Incoming freshman students for Fall 2016 will be able to apply to live in the new THRIVE residence hall.   COBE is working with Residential Life and Housing to create a program-in-residence that emphasizes well-bing as a core component of the university experience.  Students will have priority registration in the Science of Happiness course, the unique opportunity to engage with COBE researchers,  and exclusive access to regular programming related to health and wellness.

Creative Collaborations.  COBE is taking advantage of the creative scholarship that exists across the university to increase the visibility and accessibility of research findings.  For example, we are partnering with the Department of Communication Arts to engage art students in the presentation of research results in more engaging ways.  We are working with the ALT Lab on the innovative use of digital technologies to present information related to health and wellness.  We are partnering with the Center for Media + Health to design and research social media campaigns to promote wellness outcomes.   Visit our website regularly to see the new things we have coming out!

Monroe Park Campus Faculty Meeting

Dr. Danielle Dick introduces members of the Psychology faculty at VCU to COBE

Ultimately, the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute hopes to stimulate research and discovery related to behavioral and emotional health, to showcase research findings in ways that are accessible and engaging, and to translate this research to inform and improve policy, programming, and practice at the university.  By creating an interdisciplinary “space” for individuals around the campus to come together surrounding issues related to behavioral and emotional health, we hope that we can increase the well-being of our students and the broader university community, and create an environment at VCU where personal growth goes hand in hand with academic discovery.

Watch Out! Midterms Are Coming!


cobe-midterms-1024x577Written By
Helena Smith of Active Minds at VCU

Are you experiencing anxiety about the big, mean midterms coming soon? Don’t worry! Here are some ideas to help you ace each test.

Pro Tip: Start this process a week in advance to give yourself time and not cut corners.

  1. Go out, spend time with friends and have fun. Get loose, enjoy the moment and stay safe.
  2. Take the best nap of your life on Sunday, and take a moment to think quietly about mindfulness and your goals for that week.
  3. On Monday, divide the sections you need to study into five parts in order to pace yourself. Go to the library first and get comfortable.
  4. Tuesday, go upstairs in the Student Commons and study outside the Salons Rooms. Don’t forget to grab some brain food.
  5. Wednesday, sit under the stairs or next to the widows in University College Hall with a cup of your favorite caffeinated beverage to help get you through “Hump Day.”
  6. Thursday, go outside to the lawn or sidewalk as you are approaching the preparation finish line. Complete your final section and review with classmates or suitemates. Make a game for every answer answered incorrectly and find ways to creatively reinforce your studying.

You made it! Now it is time to recognize all of the hard work you’ve done and confidently conquer your midterm exam! Good luck and make it real!

How do you get ready for a big exam? Do you have any suggestions to add to this list?
Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @VCUCOBE

Active Minds at VCU seeks to raise awareness of mental health & also provide students with resources & skills to lead a mentally healthy life.
Find out more at

Women Experience Stronger Links Between Interpersonal Trauma and Alcohol Use than Men


• Pre-college interpersonal trauma predicts greater first semester alcohol use for female students.
• College-onset interpersonal trauma predicts greater concurrent and future alcohol consumption for female students.
• Associations between interpersonal trauma and alcohol use may be more salient for women than men.
• Almost 25% of college women endorsed interpersonal trauma during the first two years of college.

Many people assume that trauma causes people to drink more, but until now that has actually not been clearly demonstrated in the research literature.

In a recent issue of the journal Addictive Behaviors, co-authors Seung Bin Cho, Ph.D., a Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Psychiatry postdoctoral fellow, and University of Virginia Department of Pediatrics assistant professor Erin Berenz, Ph.D., utilized data from the Spit 4 Science research project to illuminate relationships between trauma before and during college and alcohol consumption.

The authors analyzed data from three cohorts of undergraduate students (N=1,197) who participated in a longitudinal university-wide study of alcohol use and emotional health at Virginia Commonwealth University. Participants completed assessments at year one fall, year one spring, and year two spring semesters.

Researchers found that women who reported a history of sexual or physical assault prior to college already drank more frequently and more heavily at their year one fall semester compared to their peers. Furthermore, even after accounting for a prior history of assault, young women who experienced a new assault during college reported an acute and long-term increase in their alcohol use.

The authors did not find this pattern of findings for male students, indicating that young men and women may be affected differently by assault. Given that heavier alcohol use is a risk factor for sexual assault, as well as alcohol use disorders, it is important to evaluate prevention programs geared towards decreasing alcohol use in female assault survivors.

Read the full article via Addictive Behaviors here.

Behind the Numbers: Examining Social Norms Around Alcohol, Substance Use and Sex at VCU


Blog Post written by Amy Adkins
Illustration by Chris Kindred
Data presented by the Spit4Science

Does it ever seem like everyone else has all of the fun? Has that kind of thinking ever influenced your decisions around alcohol, substance use or sex?

During Welcome Week I was lucky enough to catch Dr. Linda Hancock’s famous Love ‘n’ Liquor sessions.  Dr. Hancock is the Director of the VCU Wellness Resource Center and a strong ally of both Spit4Science and our new COBE initiative. Using her own unique blend of humor and science, she talks to students about alcohol and substance use, sex and how to stay safe during your first year at university.

One of the more popular and eye-opening aspects of her sessions is grounded in social norms theory.  My rough translation (warning: I’m a geneticist, not a clinician!) is the theory holds students think others drink more, smoke more, have sex more, etc. than they actually do.  Based on these overestimations, a student may manipulate his or her own activities to match this “norm.”

Dr. Hancock asks a series of 5 paired clicker questions covering frequency of alcohol use, frequency of energy drink consumption, number of lifetime cigarettes smoked, number of lifetime e-cigs used, and number of sexual partners in the past 3 months. The first time each question is presented, students are asked to report what they think the usual VCU student does.  Next, students are asked to report their own behavior.

Time after time, students overestimate the number of drinks/cigarettes/sexual partners their peers actually have.  Dr. Hancock goes on to explain that this is because those doing “things alot” are the people that stick out.  (Her example: you’ll remember the severely drunk person who vomited on your shoes at that party last weekend.) In reality, most VCU students use substances in moderation and had 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.  Multiple VCU datasets back up these numbers.

Below I present the Spit4Science-related statistics Dr. Hancock showed at her sessions. Spit4Science is a longitudinal survey launched in 2011 that enrolled 4 cohorts (sets) of VCU freshmen from 2011-2014.  Over 9,000 students enrolled! Each spring we follow-up with past participants. The purpose of the project is to understand how genes and the environment interact to influence substance use and emotional health.  Each figure below shows our data, sometimes including multiple waves for all those data geeks like myself out there.

So what do all of those figures mean? Here are the bottom lines…

In the spring survey, 85% of freshmen (n=5704) report drinking 4 times a month or less. 83% of sophomore participants (n=2470) also report drinking 4 times a month or less.


85% of freshmen participants (n=2052, Fall 2011) reported not having had an energy drink in the past month.


Over 50% of all participants (n=7829) have never smoked.


70% of freshmen participants (n=1829) and 78% of both sophomore (n=1185) and junior (n=978) participants have never used e-cigarettes in their lifetime.


85% of junior participants (n=950) report having 0-1 sexual partners in the past 3 months.


COBE Launch: A Retrospective


by Dr. Danielle Dick, Director of the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Initiative

We survived!

The past week was crazy as we launched the COBE initiative. Six days and ten (!) Welcome Week events later, we now have >1200 followers across Facebook and Twitter (and if I could ever figure out how to get my Instagram account to work, I know we have more there too).  Our supply of 2,000 COBE t-shirts is nearly gone, and we have another order underway so we can continue to build the COBE community (more to come about times we’ll be in the Commons and around campus).  Next comes the fun part, where we get to create a campus focused on well-being together!


COBE volunteers hand out shirts to freshmen after a Love ‘n’ Liquor event during Welcome Week 2015.

Most importantly, I want to take a moment to send out a HUGE THANK YOU to all the individuals who have made the COBE launch a success.   I especially want to thank my AMAZING team, who did all the heavy lifting (often literally; think 2000 t-shirts being drug around campus!):

Amy Adkins, who oversaw the entire COBE launch, while also supervising our undergrads and prepping for the first week of class;

Craig Zirpolo, our new digital media specialist (and recent VCU grad) who just started with our group in July and managed to build a website, launch video, and everything associated with them in the matter of a few weeks;

Zoe Neale, my graduate student who juggled classes, clinic, research, and COBE craziness all at once;

Jessica Salvatore, my right hand person whose leadership keeps all the grants and projects chugging along, enabling us to engage in ever-expanding new initiatives like COBE;

Fazil Aliev and Bin Cho, who amaze me with their statistical brilliance and yet are still willing to pitch in any time a hand is needed (need a fridge painted or bulletin board hung anyone?);

Jinni Su, Peter Barr, and Sally Kuo, my three new postdocs who just started and immediately got thrown into the COBE craziness, and jumped in as enthusiastic team players;

Megan Cooke and Jeanne Savage, my amazing graduate students, who are always willing to pitch in and help;

And lastly, Regina Coles, my project coordinator, who keeps us all organized and makes the group run.

I am so grateful to work with such a talented, supportive, and enthusiastic group of individuals.  None of this would be possible without you.


Staff from The Wellness Resource Center at VCU present at a Love ‘n’ Liquor session during Welcome Week 2015.

In addition to the members of my immediate team, there were countless others who helped make COBE possible.  Tom Woodward and Mark Luetke at the ALTlab – you are amazing.  Mark is the talented artist who quite literally brought COBE to fruition.   Remember back in June when I talked to you both about whether we could launch a major university initiative by August?  I think you thought I was a little crazy – but thanks to you we did it!

Linda Hancock – without your support, and the fabulous group of individuals that you have brought together at The Well, none of this would be possible.  Thank you all for being such wonderful partners.

COBE Director Dr. Danielle Dick presents to faculty during a meeting at VCU.

Finally, the launch of COBE is quite literally the product of hundreds of meetings and conversations over the past couple years.  Without the encouragement and support of senior leadership and faculty colleagues across VCU this would have never come to fruition.

Thank you all for making VCU such a creative, innovative place to live and work.

VCU Social Media Students Create Web Campaign for COBE


Amy Adkins and Craig Zirpolo of COBE with the #VCUSocialMedia team.

The VCU Social Media Institute offers undergraduate and graduate students from VCU a unique opportunity to work with exchange students from the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, funded by the US Embassy in Baghdad and carried out by Meridian International Center. The students work together on a four-week project developing and implementing social media campaigns and strategy for nonprofit organizations in Richmond, Va.

This year COBE was a client for the institute before we had launched our initiative in August. Our team including students Cady Andrews, Muntadher Kareem, Doaa Zain and Julie Tripp, established social media accounts for COBE via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, created and implements a visual campaign with a 3-d printed COBE figure entitled “Have you met COBE?” and produced videos introducing COBE across campus and asking students how they cope with stress. The group also produced a social media guide to help COBE maintain an interactive presence on all platforms.

Instagram 2

COBE photo for Instagram campaign by Julia Tripp

We had a wonderful experience working with the students, faculty and staff who put together the Social Media Institute and greatly appreciate their help launching COBE! Special thanks to Dr. Marcus Messner and Dr. Vivian Messner for including as a client!

Get to Know COBE: An Introduction


by Dr. Danielle Dick, Director of the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Initiative

This fall we are launching COBE: the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Initiative, and I couldn’t be more excited!  This effort has grown out of activities related to Spit for Science, a research project focused on identifying risk and protective factors associated with substance use and emotional health outcomes across the college years (and beyond).

Over the last four years, we have enrolled nearly 10,000 students into the project (and don’t worry, we’ll be back again in the spring for the next wave of data collection).   One of the amazing things that has happened as a result of this university-wide research project, is that it brought the university community together to unite around issues related to behavioral and emotional health.

There are faculty across the university who are doing amazing research related to substance use and mental health outcomes.   We already have 34 faculty from 13 different departments, 26 trainees, and more than 150 undergraduate students representing 15 different majors who have worked with the Spit for Science data – and Spit for Science is just one of MANY projects related to behavioral and emotional health that are on-going at VCU.

There are also amazing faculty and staff in student affairs who are devoted to developing fun programming related to health and wellness at the university (don’t miss Love n Liquor at Welcome Week!) and to delivering services to students who are struggling.  But even beyond that, because health and wellness impact so many aspects of our lives, there are faculty and staff across the university who are working to promote student wellbeing, from the VCU Police, to Greek Life, to Residential Life and Housing.


COBE brings together all of these groups to provide a central (virtual) place for all things related to behavioral and emotional health.  Through the COBE website, and through our social media, we will bring together information about research projects and findings, coursework related to behavioral health and wellness, and events and programs across the university related to behavioral and emotional health.

By partnering with dynamic colleagues in the ALT Lab, the School of the Arts, and the Robertson School of Media & Culture, we aim to stimulate a conversation about health and wellbeing that is engaging and interactive (science should be fun!).  We want everyone to feel ownership over COBE, and to join in and make this campaign great.  Follow us on twitterFacebook, or Instagram, and be part of the movement to make VCU a happy, healthy place to live and work!

On a personal note, the reason I became a university professor is because I love universities. My parents might say I found a way around their “you only get 4 years” adage, but that’s another story.

I love the atmosphere on an undergraduate campus.  I love the enthusiasm and excitement of thousands of freshman coming to college each year, and thousands more returning to the community they love after a summer away.  I love the sense of camaraderie at a university.  I love the creation and dissemination of knowledge in ways that can make our world a better place.  I love the energy that comes from having a community of brilliant people who are passionate about an incredible diversity of topics, and the innovation that can happen when we all come together in one place.  I love that it takes all of us to make that community, and that by the act of coming together at a place like VCU, we become more than the sum of our parts.

If you are a new student reading this, or a VCU faculty member, or VCU staff – THANK YOU for making VCU the amazing place that it is.  It is my hope that COBE will be a mobilizing force that all of us at VCU can rally around – an effort to make wellbeing a core part of the university experience at VCU.  I look forward to building that with you, and to seeing where it will go!