UTEP Professor to Study COVID-19’s Effect on Hispanics
Last Updated on July 16, 2021 at 12:00 AM
Originally published July 16, 2021
By Daniel Perez
A faculty member in The University of Texas at El Paso’s Department of Psychology plans to expand on her recent study into the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of college students, and put a greater focus on the Hispanic population.
Katherine M. Serafine, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology and director of UTEP’s Serafine Behavioral Pharmacology Laboratory, helped design the survey experiment used by Nora Charles, Ph.D., assistant professor in the University of Southern Mississippi’s (USM) School of Psychology.
The study of almost 750 USM students conducted during the fall 2019, spring 2020 and fall 2020 semesters found that participants consumed more alcohol and experienced elevated levels of perceived stress and symptoms related to mood disorders such as depression during the pandemic. The COVID-19 crisis forced people behind masks, limited human contact and necessitated virtual education.
Psychiatry Research, an international scholarly journal, published the results of the team’s study in its February 2021 edition. The Psychology Today website also referenced the research in a post about the psychosocial impact of virtual learning during the pandemic.
Since much of that data focused on USM’s Black and white students, Serafine and Charles, a clinical psychologist, decided to broaden their research to include students from other racial/ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The two researchers, who have known each other as colleagues for several years, are working with UTEP’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) to set up research protocols that will include nutrition data. An IRB is a federally mandated, locally constituted group that reviews research requests that involve human subjects to protect their rights and well-being.
“A major question we have now is to understand how Hispanic college students might have been impacted by the pandemic,” Serafine said. “We are still collecting data related to dietary intake and nutrition and we plan to explore these factors as we continue this collaboration at USM and UTEP.”
Charles said Serafine’s expertise in the biological underpinnings of behavior is important for the main study from which the COVID-related data was drawn, which aims to understand how diet and substance use relate to one another.
“The COVID study we published is really an offshoot of a larger study that was our main focus, and that study benefits from the combination of my clinical expertise and Dr. Serafine’s neuroscience expertise,” Charles said.
Serafine said the team plans to conduct research during the 2021-22 academic year. The professor said she hoped to recruit more than 500 UTEP undergraduate students from all backgrounds to participate in the online survey.
Her team will use that survey data to investigate the relationship between stress, nutrition and drugs of abuse, such as alcohol. The researcher said she expects to have preliminary data collected by the spring 2022 semester.
While El Paso continues to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, Serafine said there are other anxiety factors that college students face that will factor into this study.
“Stress in general tends to be something that fluctuates throughout the college experience, so we’re interested in continuing more long term to continually collect data from both populations at USM and at UTEP,” she said.
Her research team will participate in this summer’s data collection, to include sending reminders to participants as necessary, and coding the data. Guillermo Ornelas, a senior neuroscience major with a concentration in psychology, has been one of Serafine’s research assistants since March 2020. The El Paso native said the subject – the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of college students – fascinated him and he looked forward to his role on the team.
“I am excited to learn how survey research is done and how data analysis is performed,” said Ornelas, who plans to become a psychiatrist.
Serafine also lauded the work of 2020 UTEP graduate Raymond Mendoza, who helped code early nutrition data collected from the USM surveys. Mendoza, who double majored in psychology as well as English and American Literature with a minor in mathematics, will assist with the research this summer before he starts his doctoral studies in psychology in fall 2021 at the University of Arizona.
Mendoza, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, who moved to El Paso as a pre-teen, said that the research studied how the pandemic affected students’ diets and recreational drug use. He added that the diet models created for this research could be valuable for future studies.
“It’s quite feasible to see the previous work in our laboratory used for pandemic research as well,” Mendoza said.
Once the researchers determine the relationship between dietary intake and drug or substance use among college students at USM and UTEP, the next step will be to explore those relationships in Serafine’s lab. Her lab examines how neurochemistry and neuroanatomy are involved in human substance abuse disorders.
UTEP’s Edward Castañeda, Ph.D., professor of psychology, lauded Serafine and Charles for their interdisciplinary collaboration because it allows the two researchers to attack the same issue from different perspectives to achieve a synergistic impact beyond what either can achieve alone. He said those efforts lead to high-impact research.
“When they share their ideas, something new emerges from that which is greater than any individual effort,” Castañeda said. “A greater outcome from collaborative research is much more powerful.”