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Profile: Brooke Dorsey, PhD Candidate

PhD student uses NIH grant to research health disparities

Standing amid a crowd of soldiers in a dusty army base in Bagram, Afghanistan, Brooke Dorsey could hardly believe her ears—President George W. Bush had just declared war on Iraq. For Dorsey, a small-town Kansas woman who had just three months earlier been cramming for college finals, the moment was surreal.

“It really hadn’t sunk in yet,” recalls Dorsey, who had joined the U.S. Army National Guard in 2000 to help pay for her undergraduate education. “I thought it was going to be one weekend a month, but after Sept. 11 everything changed. Here I was in Afghanistan and there was a war going on.”

Today, Dorsey, a 28-year-old PhD candidate, recalls her 18-month stint as a soldier in Afghanistan as a true “test of will.” Living conditions were rough and at times she was frightened. “But it definitely opened my mind up, and made me stronger and more tolerant,” she says. “I feel like I can work with anyone and listen to different ideas and collaborate with a variety of different people.”

Those attributes have served Dorsey well as she’s pursued a career as an academic researcher, focusing first on forensic psychology, and now on health disparities among different socioeconomic populations. She graduated in 2005 from North Carolina Central University, earned her Spanish Language Certificate in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 2005 and received her master’s in forensic psychology from the University of Denver in 2007. Later that year she came to UC Denver to pursue a doctorate in health and behavioral sciences. In August, the National Institutes of Health granted her a $75,000, two-year minority research grant to work with Associate Professor Richard Miech in exploring trends in illegal drug use among different socioeconomic populations.

“The goal is to look at the different trends that have been happening so far, so that we can make predictions about future drug use and possibly recommendations about intervention,” says Dorsey.

She is particularly interested in the fact that Denver’s drug overdose rates have continued to climb as other cities’ rates decline or level off. She also plans to explore why drug overdose is so common among people who have recently been released from prison.

“Coroners are noticing that within something like 48 hours of people being released from prison, many are overdosing,” she says. “It could be that once they get out they go back and try to use the same amount they used before and their body just can’t handle that.”

Ultimately, Dorsey wants to dig deeper into the controversial, yet commonly held belief among African Americans that alcohol and illegal drugs have historically been used to suppress minority populations. “I don’t know that there is a whole lot of truth to it, but I do know that a lot of people in the African-American community believe that these things have been pushed into their communities over the years to try to kill them off,” she says.

She also hopes to continue research she started this year in Ecuador, looking at both the negative and positive health impacts that ecotourism has on communities in developing countries. “I’m interested in looking at health disparities of all types and how they come about,” she says. “I have had so many opportunities here and all the ideas I have come up with have been supported. The faculty have been great.”