behind The Bench

Circuitous path leads researcher to EVMS

As an undergraduate, EVMS researcher Andrew Plunk, PhD, double-majored in philosophy and religious studies and double-minored in German and creative writing.

So naturally, his next step was a master’s in public health. Throw in a stint in the Army, a PhD in ethics and post-doctoral work in psychiatric epidemiology.

It all makes sense now.

“My background prepared me well for what I’m doing at EVMS,” says Dr. Plunk, who joined the school in 2014.

What he’s doing is researching multifaceted issues with far-reaching implications. For example, two of his recent studies found that the high-school dropout rate will likely rise if the nation’s legal drinking age is lowered and as an unintended consequence of legalizing medical marijuana. He earned funding for those and other studies from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, both part of the National Institutes of Health.

Now, thanks to a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Plunk is researching the impact of a new federal policy that bans smoking in public housing. Forming a community advisory board was one of his first steps.

“We need to build trust and appropriately engage people,” he says. “You can’t dictate to people how they should live their lives or what their goals should be. It should all be a conversation that’s based on where they are at the moment.”

Dr. Plunk, who’s also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, works in EVMS Pediatrics’ Community Health and Research division, directed by Kaethe Ferguson, EdD, the Toy Savage Endowed Professor in Pediatrics and Associate Professor of Pediatrics.

“Dr. Plunk’s expertise in handling large, national data sets, as well as his interest in substance abuse, was a great match for our work in communities,” Dr. Ferguson says. “The community-engaged research he has done so far with Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority has extended and elevated our existing NRHA collaborations to a whole new level.”

Another aspect of Dr. Plunk’s background adds to his effectiveness as a researcher. He grew up in a working-class neighborhood, and members of his extended family wrestled with substance abuse. Moving beyond stereotypes, he believes, is a vital step in solving health inequities.

“We don’t judge people or try to fix anyone,” he says. “We work with people where they are to help them identify strengths that they can draw on.”