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Smoke- and Vape-Free Scholars Initiative (SVFSI)

TRDRP-funded initiative is training the next generation of tobacco prevention and control researchers

Andy Jose Lopez went from surviving the prison-industrial complex to becoming a tobacco research scholar planning a scientific project on tobacco interventions to help inmates in California prisons stay smoke free. A first-generation American and first-generation college student attending Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Lopez is one of dozens of students participating in TRDRP’s Smoke- and Vape-Free Scholars Initiative (SVFSI).

Launched in 2022, SVFSI is training a new generation of tobacco researchers from priority populations — those most negatively impacted by the tobacco industry’s marketing practices, such as those with lower socioeconomic status, first-generation, sexual and gender minorities, and racially diverse populations that are disproportionately affected by tobacco use.

SVFSI pairs faculty and students from California State Universities (CSUs) and California Community Colleges with faculty researchers from California doctorate-granting institutions, thus far including CSU Dominguez Hills, CSU San Marcos, CSU San Bernardino, CSU Stanislaus, San Francisco State University, CSU Fresno, Ohlone Community College, and Southwestern College pairing with UC San Diego (UCSD), UC Merced, UC San Francisco (UCSF), San Diego State University (SDSU), Charles Drew University of Medicine and Science, and Stanford.

“Students conduct tobacco-related research projects in a mentor’s laboratory or team while also engaging in local tobacco control activities,” explains TRDRP senior program officer for biomedical sciences Dr. Ginny Delaney.

In August, Lopez and other “NextGen Smoke and Vape Free Latinx Scholars” from Southwestern showcased their research at a meeting at SDSU. Lopez’ presentation, “Abstinence from tobacco use after release from smoke-free prisons: a literature review in preparation for a study in Southern California,” was inspired by his personal experiences. While in prison, Lopez enrolled in the New York University prison program which awoke his passion for education. He aspires to obtain his Ph.D. in sociology and is well on his way, gaining experience in scientific research as well as conducting interventions to change health outcomes for others.

“It was wonderful and inspiring to see those presentations,” says Dr. Maggie Kulik, TRDRP senior program officer overseeing the initiative. “I was truly impressed by all.”

SVFSI has big goals: enhancing the diversity of the biomedical research workforce, creating student enthusiasm for tobacco-related research, and creating a ‘next generation’ of researchers which represent the diversity of ‘tobacco priority populations.’ “It is critical that members of those communities participate in and drive the research that will inform how best to reduce the negative impacts of tobacco and achieve health equity,” says Kulik.

TRDRP funded six SVFSI grantee teams in the first round in 2022 and another two in the 2023 cycle. Each initiative receives four years of funding and can support a maximum of 15 scholars. Beyond that, each team of institutions has the flexibility to select the scholars from the priority populations they serve and can decide how they specifically choose to implement their projects.

Creating a Diverse Tobacco Researcher Pipeline

One project funded in the first cycle, “Attaining the California Endgame by Building Capacity Among First Generation Latinx College Students,” is co-led by Dr. Rosa Toro, Associate Professor of Psychology at CSU Fresno and Dr. Arturo Durazo, a Community-Engaged Scientist at UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute. They chose to engage low-socioeconomic status, Latinx, and first-generation college students in “a culturally competent curriculum, advocacy projects, and research mentorship opportunities that all center on tobacco-related issues,” says Toro.

Past research identified the Latinx community as a priority population because of high rates of tobacco use, disproportionate targeting by the tobacco industry, and high rates of second-hand smoke exposure. The greater Fresno area is one region in which the industry targets the Latinx community.

Their project’s ultimate goal, which aligns with SVFSI overall, is helping to create a diverse tobacco control workforce. Toro and her team believe this is a necessary step toward achieving the “endgame” — the state’s goal to end the commercial tobacco epidemic and eliminate tobacco-related health disparities for all Californians.

“[SVFSI] presented an opportunity to integrate research, advocacy, and personal capacity development experiences while embedding a team of scholar-advocates in the local Latinx community,” says Toro, “In other words, it provided the vehicle to equip members of the community with the skills to be conduits of change and advocacy for their community.”

Towards Health Equity in San Diego and San Francisco

Another SVFSI project, “Reducing Tobacco Disease in Diverse Communities,” partners CSU San Marcos (CSUSM) Associate Professor Dr. Kimberly Pulvers and UCSD Associate Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health Dr. Dennis Trinidad. They received funding in the 2022 cycle and are working with students from racially/ethnically minoritized, low-income and/or LGBTQ backgrounds who will engage in a two-year training experience in the San Diego region.

In this project, students work on a research project in the first year and work with a community-based tobacco control specialist on a local advocacy project in their second year. Throughout both years, students take a research class and weekly seminars on tobacco control topics, as well as receiving professional development, academic advising, networking and career guidance.

“I have been mentoring students in tobacco prevention and treatment research for years and was ecstatic to have a formal initiative elevate tobacco research and advocacy training at the state level,” says Pulvers. “I am passionate about this issue and am so excited to have the necessary resources to provide students a substantial training experience.”

Another project selected for funding, “Enabling Insider Research with Priority Populations to Achieve Tobacco-Related Health Equity,” pairs co-PIs Dr. Rama Kased, Assistant Professor in Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University (SFSU), a minority-serving institution (MSI) and Dr. Kala Mehta, Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at UCSF, a research-intensive institution. SFSU had previously established the BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) project, which led to SF State and UCSF putting together a competitive proposal for a partnership grant.

“The overall scope of our SVFSI is to cultivate the community cultural wealth and especially the resistant capital of SF BUILD Scholars to work in partnership with tobacco control researchers at UCSF,” says Kased.

One SFSU student who received funding from the project, Reni Rubio, took an ethnic studies class from Kased during which he wrote a research paper on the harmful effects tobacco has on students of color. “Hearing the details encouraged me to become part of something bigger,” says Rubio. “The experience so far has been wonderful. I was able to learn about public health and meet a lot of amazing people that do great work for our communities. I'm excited for what's yet to come!”

Each funded project has flexibility in how to implement their programs. Allowing students to present their research before their peers is an essential component of becoming a scientist-researcher.

Several of Lopez’ peer students joined him at the Southwestern College/SDSU event in August. Psychology major Maria Christina Huerta Avila presented on a citizen science tool in her talk, “Engaging Local Communities in Tobacco Control: Pilot Testing a Smart Phone App for Mapping Tobacco Product Waste.” Computer science major Oscar Alberto Lopez Vazquez presented about “Thirdhand Smoke in Homes: Fate, Characterization, and Remediation.” Psychology major and mother Ashley Pulido, presented on “Family Structure and Smoking in Adolescents,” and psychology major Vanessa Quezada, who grew up in Mexico and witnessed the popularity of tobacco and e-cigarettes during her middle school and high school years, presented on “Tobacco Interventions for Youth.”

These and other promising SVFSI students represent the future for tobacco prevention and control research. Tobacco-related research may not be the first topic these students would consider during their undergraduate career, were it not for their participation in the SVFSI. The program’s mentorship and training opportunities, not to mention funding, may prove critical to their academic success, providing an easy-to-follow pipeline from undergraduate to graduate student, and for some, a satisfying lifelong career. 

Smoke- and Vape-Free Scholars Initiative (One Pager)

Wendee Nicole Holtcamp, 


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