The National Science Foundation (NSF) has approved a $114,000 RAPID award to The University of Texas at El Paso’s April Gile Thomas, Ph.D., assistant professor psychology, to conduct research related to COVID-19.
Her study, “Understanding At-Risk Adolescents’ and Parents’ Daily Experiences During COVID-19,” is UTEP’s first NSF RAPID award related to the coronavirus. The study began May 1 and will involve 105 adolescents and parents from throughout El Paso, to include some who are incarcerated or on probation. Thomas said that the virus’ effect on at-risk youth could be pervasive and distinct.
Thomas, the project’s principal investigator, will be supported by two UTEP graduate students and 25 undergraduates and post-baccalaureate student research assistants. Her co-PI is Cait Cavanagh, Ph.D., assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice and the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University.
Roberto Osegueda, Ph.D., vice president for research, said the NSF award is a positive reflection on Thomas, her department, her college and the University.
“We are pleased with the National Science Foundation’s selection of Dr. Thomas to conduct this timely and important research,” Osegueda said. “It also is important to note the number of junior researchers involved. It is a testament to UTEP’s unwavering commitment to student research, especially among undergraduates.”
Thomas said she will incorporate her ongoing longitudinal study of the effects of incarceration and justice-involvement on youth sleep and social development research into the new research to provide a pre-COVID baseline. The research will compare adolescent’s stress, mood, social skills, substance use, physical health, delinquency, mental health symptoms, quality of social relationships, and psychosocial development throughout the outbreak. She said the project also will study whether juvenile incarceration aggravates the potential effect of coronavirus on youth outcomes.
“All people are likely going to be affected in some way or another by this pandemic, but we believe that adolescents – particularly incarcerated adolescents – may be especially vulnerable and face unique challenges in the coming months,” said Thomas, who added that her team was honored with the opportunity to conduct this research. “We hope our findings will improve our understanding of the needs, risks and potential protective factors of a vulnerable group of youth in a global state of emergency.”
The UTEP researcher said this work could enhance best practice for juvenile detention facilities and probation departments in times of crisis to ensure that youth continue to receive important rehabilitative services.
Denis O’Hearn, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s College of Liberal Arts, said Thomas’ selection brings great pride to the college because it is an NSF RAPID grant and because the investigation is so critical at this time.
RAPID funding is designed to provide support for research that is urgent in nature, in response to an unanticipated event, and serves the national interest. UTEP will receive a little more than $98,000 from the grant, and the rest will go to Michigan State University.
“(Thomas) is a leader among scholars across our college who have stepped up to provide research and advice to the community during this difficult time,” O’Hearn said.
The grant is the latest of Thomas’ achievements to impress Edward Castañeda, Ph.D., professor and chair in UTEP’s Department of Psychology. He called her a diligent, productive, energetic and research-focused scientist who consistently shares her thoughtful and insightful opinions to enhance the department. He said that shows her commitment to the overall quality of UTEP’s academic climate.
“It is not surprising that she quickly connected the dots to win research funding around her professional interests to understand the dynamics of incarceration that create unfavorable threats for at-risk youth,” Castañeda said.
“She demonstrates outstanding insights, in this case how COVID-19 further exacerbates the inequities that compound the physical and mental health of adolescents placed into juvenile detention.”