Report on the University of Michigan Meeting on “Sex/Gender and Psychoactive Substances”

Longtime Points readers no doubt know that one of the blog’s founding interests lies in bridging (or breaching) the institutional, material, and conceptual boundaries that separate historians from on the one hand, policy/public health folks and, on the other, “brain scientists” and their ilk.  Joe Gabriel blogged about the difficulties of this project in an early post, and some of the tensions involved in the project were discussed in last winter’s symposium on David Courtwright’s recent article on “Addiction and the Science of History,” the last piece of which you can find here, with links back to the five installments. As a small group blog, Points is limited in what it can do about this silo-ing problem– we can point it out, and we can provide a venue for work that attempts to address it, but (apologies to all the technological utopians out there) we lack the institutional muscle necessary to really change the structures of knowledge production.

Fortunately for those of us who still hold out revolutionary hope for genuine inter- or cross-disciplinary work, somebody out there does seem to have such muscle and, equally important, the will to put it to good use.  Even better, Points editors Nancy Campbell, Michelle McClellan, and Trysh Travis have gotten hooked in with them.  We participated a couple of weeks ago in a small working conference on Sex/Gender and Psychoactive Substances, sponsored by the University of Michigan’s Substance Abuse Research Center and its Center for Advancing Research and Solutions for Society, Institute for Research on Women and Gender, and School of Social Work.

U. Michigan Working Conference

Along with about fifteen other researchers from a wide range of disciplines (full list of participants below), we talked quite candidly about the conceptual assumptions of our various disciplines, our institutions’ demands for certain “outputs” and “deliverables,” and our combined interest in and skepticism about one another’s research.   The conversation was structured around the topics of normative drug use, problem drug use, recovery and relapse, and we considered what we know and don’t know about these topics, as well as current controversies in the field and how they might be addressed by research, clinical practice and policy.  There was very little showboating, and a lot of genuine conversation and learning.

I think I can speak for the collective when I say that there seemed to be a real agreement that, despite rhetorical attention to interdisciplinarity by Deans, Provosts, funding agencies, and the like, actually doing such work remains hard.  Even people who want to do it find themselves hampered by both conceptual and institutional structures as well as disciplinary prejudices, many of which were established during researchers’ early training.  Conference-goers were united in their desire to work collectively to resist these normative pressures, and the event was structured intelligently to allow time for developing some rudimentary communications networks that will allow for the continued exchange of ideas and publicizing of new work projects.  As Managing Editor of Points, I was happy to be able to offer the blog as a space for knowledge production and promotion; watch this space for contributions from conference participants in the coming months.

Points Hates Silos

For now, readers committed to creating interdisciplinary knowledge networks may be interested to know about the four working groups that precipitated out of the meeting and to get a sense of their goals.  (Links to participants’ web presence appear only at first iteration of their names.)

Science and Public Policy Workgroup
Mission:  To advance the capacity for translational research from feminist and transdisciplinary perspectives.

Nancy Campbell (Rensselaer Polytechnic), Laurie Drabble (San Jose State), Paul Draus (Michigan, Dearborn), Quyen Epstein-Ngo (Michigan), Beth Glover Reed (Michigan), Christine Grella (UCLA), Larry Gant  (Michigan), Mark Greenwald (Wayne State), Mary Heitzeg (Michigan), Sheryl Kubiak (Michigan State), Cynthia Kuhn (Duke),  Wendy Lynch (Virginia), Lynn Paltrow (National Advocates for Pregnant Women), Trysh Travis (Florida).

Improving Research Models Workgroup
Mission:  To begin a dialogue among basic, preclinical, human laboratory, and clinical researchers with the goal of improving animal models and treatment & prevention strategies, with an emphasis on sex/gender, their interaction with each other and with other phenotypic characteristics.

Jill Becker (Michigan), Quyen Epstein-Ngo (Michigan), Suzette Evans (Columbia), Cynthia Kuhn (Duke), Beth Glover Reed (Michigan), Mark Greenwald (Wayne State), Piper Keyes (Michigan), Wendy Lynch (Virginia), Adam Perry (Michigan), Kirsten Porter-Stransky (Michigan), Shanna Resendez (Michigan), Ron See (Medical University of South Carolina), Christel Westenbroek (Michigan), Cora Lee Wetherington (National Institute on Drug Abuse), Lindsay Yager (Michigan)

Thinking about Development/Life Course/Risk & Protective Factors Workgroup
Mission: To integrate what is currently known about sex differences in biology (including hormonal influences) as it relates to AToD [alcohol, tobacco, and other drug] use acquisition, maintenance, and relapse, with what is known regarding gender differences in patterns of AToD use and addiction across the lifespan.  Hormonal changes during adolescence, pregnancy and menopause are of particular interest.  An additional important focus is the impact of, and interactions with, trauma and sociocultural factors on gender differences in use and abuse and the ways this changes across the lifespan.

Toni Abbey (Wayne State), Jill Becker (Michigan), Jennifer Cummings (Michigan), Kyla Day (Michigan), Quyen Epstein-Ngo (Michigan), Beth Glover Reed (Michigan), Wendy Lynch (Virginia), Cynthia Kuhn (Duke), Mary Heitzeg (Michigan), Sheryl Kubiak (Michigan State), Laura McCloskey (Indiana), Rikki Patton (Ohio State), Ilona Phillips, MSW, Cora Lee Wetherington (National Institute on Drug Abuse)

Feminism Workgroup
Mission: To foster communication and collaboration between feminist scholars and activists and substance use/abuse researchers, including scientists, clinicians, and policy makers.

Elizabeth Armstrong (Michigan), Jill Becker (Michigan), Nancy Campbell (Rensselaer Polytechnic), Laurie Drabble (San Jose State), Beth Glover Reed (Michigan), Katherine Goldey (Michigan), Christine Grella (UCLA), Sheryl Kubiak (Michigan State), Michelle McClellan (Michigan), Trysh Travis (Florida)