Virmarie Correa-Fernandez, Ph.D.
Ph.D. Carlos Albizu University
M.S. Carlos Albizu University
B.A. University of Puerto Rico
I was born and raised in Puerto Rico. I am a first generation scientist who is committed to conducting research that leads to improved health and wellbeing of the vulnerable and underserved. I pursued a career in Clinical Psychology, obtaining my doctoral degree (PhD) in 2003. Both my academic training and clinical work experience allowed me to develop a strong record of direct clinical work with vulnerable populations and led to a growing interest in mental health disparities. Soon after graduation, I completed a Tobacco Treatment Specialist Certification and was trained in Motivational Interviewing. I contributed to the development of my hometown’s first individualized and interdisciplinary tobacco cessation clinic, where I offered counseling to smokers interested in quitting. In 2005, I joined a partnership between The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center and The University of Puerto Rico Cancer Center in the implementation of two pilot studies: an outreach project promoting tobacco cessation and a clinical trial aimed to test the efficacy of a telephone-based counseling intervention for simultaneously treating at-risk alcohol use and tobacco dependence among Puerto Ricans. The invaluable clinical experience with Latino smokers trying to quit as well as the research endeavors I was involved in sparked my interest in pursuing a research career investigating the development, efficacy and treatment mechanisms of current recommended treatment approaches among Latinos, especially for the co-morbidity of tobacco dependence with non-nicotine substance use disorders and other mental health problems. I realized that by becoming a scientist, I could generate questions and contribute to find answers that will benefit the health and well-being of vulnerable populations. As a behavioral researcher, my work would have a broader reach as it will contribute to translate research findings into practice, and will, ultimately, have a more sustainable public health impact.
The overarching mission of my program of research is to generate knowledge that contributes to reducing tobacco-related and behavioral health disparities, particularly among underrepresented ethnic groups. I seek to establish an independently-funded research program that elucidates the mechanisms and treatment response related to multiple health behavior change, and smoking cessation among individuals with behavioral health vulnerabilities, especially among Latinos. I am particularly interested in investigating the efficacy of evidence-based treatments for the co-morbidity of tobacco dependence with non-nicotine substance use disorders and other mental health problems; and to inform, develop, evaluate and disseminate culturally competent interventions for smokers with these comorbidities. Thus far, my research has focused on understanding and addressing health behavior change among diverse underserved populations (e.g. individuals meeting criteria for depression and anxiety disorders and/or low socioeconomic status, racial/ethnic minorities), with a specific focus on smoking cessation and at-risk drinking. I am expanding my research program by: (a) focusing on Latino populations, (b) studying the complex and dynamic relationships between psychosocial factors (e.g. self-efficacy, distress tolerance, social support, alcohol use, etc.) in predicting different cessation milestones, (c) culturally adapting and testing the feasibility of a distinctive cognitive-behavioral intervention (e.g. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) for Latino smokers with co-morbid depression and anxiety, and (d) encouraging evidence-based smoking cessation interventions at the provider and clinic levels in mental health settings. These areas are addressed in my Mentored Research Scholar Grant (from American Cancer Society), entitled: Reducing Tobacco-Related Health Disparities: A Focus on Mental Health.
In addition to my primary research focus, other areas of interest aimed at reducing behavioral health disparities include: understanding and promoting Latino participation in behavioral research and psychosocial interventions, mixed-methods approaches, community-based participatory research, and multi-level interventions.