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Michelle Zaso Awarded Prestigious NIH Fellowship
Michelle Zaso, a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences, is the recipient of a Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Individual Predoctoral Fellowship. Funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (through the National Institutes of Health), the award will support her dissertation research, which focuses on how genetics and environments shape alcohol use in adolescence. Specifically, her dissertation will examine how alcohol metabolism genes interact with alcohol-promoting peer environments to influence drinking trajectories from 13-18 years of age.
Zaso’s primary sponsor of the fellowship, Aesoon Park, associate professor of psychology, notes that some people carry variants in alcohol metabolism genes that delay the breakdown of alcohol into a harmless substance; if individuals carrying these genetic variants drink alcohol a lot, they are more likely to develop cancer due to extended exposure to harmful alcohol metabolites.
“Thus, her project is highly important not only to inform the mechanisms underlying problematic drinking in adolescents, but also to prevent long-term serious health consequences like cancer,” says Park.
Co-sponsors of her research include Stephen Maisto, professor of psychology at Syracuse University, and Stephen Glatt, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at SUNY Upstate Medical University.
Hailing from Batavia, New York, Zaso received a B.S. in biological sciences with a concentration in neuroscience from the University of Rochester. Currently she is working on her graduate degree in clinical psychology, with an expected completion in May 2019.
“We hope findings can advance our understanding of the multifaceted contributors to accelerations in drinking over the critical adolescent period and eventually aid in prevention and intervention efforts,” explains Zaso.
A&S news caught up with Zaso for a series of questions about her most recent honor.
01Briefly explain your current research.
My research examines how inherited genetic predispositions for alcohol use and alcohol-promoting social environments together shape drinking across adolescence and young adulthood.
My dissertation project, specifically, is looking at how these factors influence escalations in problematic drinking in adolescence. Adolescence is a critical developmental period characterized by rapid escalations in alcohol use and alcohol-related consequences. While alcohol use generally increases across adolescence and decreases during the transition to adulthood, subgroups of adolescents follow many distinct patterns of drinking over this period. My research aims to characterize genetic and peer environmental factors that are associated with membership in more problematic drinking patterns. For example, what factors tend to be associated with adolescents increasing versus maintaining/decreasing their drinking over this time? The project involves secondary data analyses on a longitudinal, population-based cohort of over 10,000 adolescents.
02What personally inspired you to pursue this area of study and what do you hope it will affect in the future?
I became aware of differences in drinking patterns across social situations during a semester abroad on an undergraduate research internship in London, when I noticed differences in drinking patterns across the United States and United Kingdom. I became curious how psychosocial environments may interplay with inherited genetic predispositions to drinking, which had been introduced in my undergraduate biology coursework.
Problematic alcohol use is a significant public health concern and can lead to substantial individual and societal consequences. I hope that my research can more comprehensively characterize alcohol use etiologies through an integration of genetic and psychosocial perspectives.
03Tell us about your most recent grant and how it will benefit your current research.
The award allows doctoral students to get specialized research training from faculty mentors while working on research for their dissertation. For me, it provides opportunities for specialized training in existing theoretical and empirical knowledge on genetic and environmental etiologies of alcohol use. It also provides advanced training in genetic and statistical methodologies to model these risks.
04What was your reaction when you were notified you would be awarded the grant?
It was a humbling experience. I am excited and honored to receive the fellowship. I am incredibly grateful to my co-sponsors for their mentorship and to many others at Syracuse, including the faculty who wrote letters of support for my application and the Office of Sponsored Programs. And to my family and friends for their endless support and encouragement. I am excited about the opportunities the fellowship provides to advance my research training.
05What are your career/research plans after graduation?
My long-term career goal is to become an independent, multidisciplinary researcher examining interplay of genetics and alcohol-promoting social environments on alcohol use.