Laura Holt ’00 and her Trinity students study the psychology of vaping
By Andrew J. Concatelli
“Many of my research interests are guided by my students,” says Trinity College Associate Professor of Psychology Laura Holt ’00. “Recently students have come to me saying, ‘A lot of students are vaping; should we be worried about this?’ ” Holt, whose past research has involved the study of alcohol and prescription stimulant misuse in adolescents, is now turning her attention to the growing trend of electronic cigarette use by youth and young adults.
Holt’s research on vaping during the 2019–20 academic year will be conducted as part of a survey on health-related behaviors led by a researcher at Saint Louis University. “I’m taking a cue from students, who are telling me loudly and clearly, ‘This is something you need to study; you need to understand how students are thinking about this behavior,’ ” she says.
E-cigarette users may be familiar with the brand names or the flavors, but not everyone understands that the products contain the drug nicotine, Holt says. “When you know how addictive nicotine is—it’s one of the most addictive drugs—the fact that we are seeing a resurgence of nicotine use in youth with these e-cigarettes is a cause for concern,” she says.
Some e-cigarettes were introduced as harm-reduction tools to help people who already smoked cigarettes shift to a tobacco-free product. “That can work,” Holt says, “but you can also see the opposite, which is that teens who start with e-cigarettes are much more likely to go to combustibles than someone who’s never smoked at all. Starting with e-cigarettes can lead to using traditional cigarettes, which is concerning given that the negative health effects of combustible cigarette use are well established.”
E-cigarettes have been in the U.S. market for more than 10 years, but studies about their use and effects have only just begun. “There’s a lack of regulation in the market, and we have young people using those products well in excess of traditional combustible cigarettes,” Holt says. “We just don’t have a clear picture of what e-cigarettes do to the brain or the body when used long-term. There’s not much research yet.”
As a substance-use researcher and a clinical psychologist, Holt says, her position is never one of judgment. “I’m not out to shame people,” she says. “I’m more interested in asking questions that will help emerging adults or college students make informed decisions: How do we understand this behavior better, and how, if at all, do we intervene to try to prevent or change this behavior? How can we help people be aware of the behaviors so they don’t go on to the longer-term use that presents health problems, interpersonal problems, and psychological problems?”
Associate Professor of Psychology and Psychology Department Chair Dina L. Anselmi says that Holt is a leader in her area of substance abuse research because she is creative and theoretically sophisticated while grounded in understanding the real-world effects of her research. “She is interested in developing interventions that aim to educate students about substance abuse and hopefully reduce addictive behaviors,” Anselmi says of Holt. “The answers to questions that Laura asks can have direct impact on the health and psychological well-being of the students we teach.”
As an undergraduate at Trinity, Holt was a member of the Interdisciplinary Science Program (ISP), which exposes first-year students to scientific research. “I have to credit ISP with introducing me to the idea of research as a central part of my field and understanding how flexibly one can deploy research strategies to better understand human behavior,” she says. “During the second semester of my first year, I was placed in a research lab in psychology, and I knew from that point on that I wanted to do research in psychology.”
Holt finds addiction compelling to study because it touches the lives of so many people. “Everyone knows someone who is affected by addiction,” she says, “and yet there is a such a stigma around the topic, which makes it more difficult for people to ask for help.”
While earning her master’s and Ph.D. from Rutgers University and serving as a fellow with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Holt worked with clinical patients and researched topics including alcohol and marijuana use in college students. “Emerging adults who are 18 to 25 have the highest rates of substance use of any demographic group. It’s critical to do research with this population and with adolescents in order to understand the factors that lead people to initiate substance use,” Holt says.
IN THE LABS AT TRINITY
A strong connection with Trinity and with the city of Hartford brought Holt back to the college as a member of the faculty in 2008. A course she has developed, “Evaluation and Treatment of Addictive Behavior,” welcomes visiting speakers who share stories of addiction in their families. “Students have told me that having a whole course devoted to understanding addiction was important to them for understanding themselves, their family, and their friends,” she says. “It’s very fulfilling as a teacher to see these topics resonate with students and see them go on to do really interesting things in the field.”
Eliza L. Marsh ’18 currently conducts addiction research at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, and is affiliated with the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Her research focuses primarily on behavioral medicine interventions—such as fitness and smartphone apps—for alcohol-use disorder, and she plans to pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. As a psychology major at Trinity, Marsh worked with Holt on investigating prescription-stimulant misuse and the best ways for someone with a prescription to say no when asked to share medication.
“Professor Holt is a fantastic teacher and researcher. She is fair, compassionate, and enthusiastic, and I could not ask for a better mentor,” Marsh says. “Her research applies to college students all across the United States and will provide insight into meaningful interventions in the future.”
Holt regularly supervises senior thesis projects and works in her lab with student research assistants, many of whom have designed studies or co-authored papers with Holt. Bella Blumenschein ’21 is collaborating with Holt on a two-year longitudinal study of graduates of Bates College and Trinity to try to identify predictors of who continues to use substances after college. Blumenschein says, “The goal of the study is to observe how the patterns of stimulant misuse may change or stay the same for students in our population once they transition from college to the ‘real world.’ ”
Holt notes that students are integral to the operation of her research and lab. “I really appreciate their ideas and feedback,” she says. “They help shape my research to make sure it is relevant and that I’m asking the questions that can inform interventions. I think what appeals to students is that they can see how these studies fit into the big picture and will inform actual practice.”
Blumenschein adds, “Professor Holt is definitely one of the best teachers I have ever had. Especially since I plan on following a similar path to hers and become a researcher myself, working with her is an opportunity to learn how to conduct a study from the start, trying to answer questions no one has asked before.”