How studying dog adoptions led one postdoc to research addiction treatment

Sarah Weinsztok | Postdoctoral Researcher | Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research & Treatment

Few researchers can say their studies have taken them from animal shelters to classrooms to out-patient environments , but Sarah Weinsztok can.

Weinsztok is a postdoctoral researcher at KU’s Cofrin Logan Center for Addiction Research & Treatment and a lecturer in the department of applied behavioral science. Her work at the Cofrin Logan Center, which is part of KU’s Life Span Institute, primarily focuses on how factors in a person’s environment impact their success with interventions for hazardous alcohol use.

“I went to the University of Florida as an undergrad knowing I wanted to study psychology in some way, thinking I might go into clinical psychology,” Weinsztok said. “I knew I wanted to help people, but I had no idea what that was going to look like at the time.”

While exploring undergraduate research opportunities, Weinsztok stumbled upon one in an animal shelter. A UF graduate student was studying dog behaviors that resulted in adoption. She would then train the dogs to engage in those behaviors to increase their chances of being adopted. This work piqued Weinsztok’s interest in behavior analysis, a subset of psychology that focuses on how reward schedules influence animal (including human) behavior.

“So that got me interested in behavior analysis,” Weinsztok said. “And then I got into the clinical side, working in clinics and schools focused on assessment and treatment of challenging behavior among neurodiverse populations. I realized, OK, this is what I want to do. I want to learn about behavior analysis and the good that it can do in the world.”

Now Weinsztok is working to improve the success of alcohol treatment with support from a National Institutes of Health training grant that supports translational research, which aims to move basic scientific discoveries into practice.

“I’m really interested in how our environment and the way we exist in the world influences our behavior,” Weinsztok said. “I am curious about refining current behavioral interventions for alcohol use disorder or hazardous alcohol use that look at alternative activities as potential treatments.”

Oftentimes addiction treatment research occurs in a controlled setting, such as a laboratory or clinical facility. But this doesn’t always indicate whether a treatment will work in the natural environment. Alternative activities like exercise might be achievable during a research trial but difficult for people to apply in their everyday lives.

“Equity is a really important piece here,” Weinsztok said. “You can’t [start a new exercise habit] if you don’t have an easily accessible gym, or a place to hike or walk safely, or nature in which to garden and play frisbee or whatever it may be.”

Weinsztok plans to continue her work in research and teaching after her postdoctoral fellowship. She credits collaborators with helping her achieve her goals in this complex area. This includes her advisor, Michael Amlung, associate professor of applied behavioral science and associate scientist with the Cofrin Logan Center, as well as researchers at the KU Medical Center and other institutions.  

“I see a lot of potential growth in the area that I’m working in, but it also requires a lot of collaboration,” she said. “Continuing to grow an interdisciplinary network is going to be really important.”