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Faculty Profile: Assistant Professor Valerie Shapiro

Assistant Professor Valerie Shapiro Focuses on the Gap between Research and Practice in Prevention

What is your personal and educational background?
I was born and raised in the northeastern United States and earned my bachelor’s degree from Colgate University in New York.  As a psychology major, I learned how readily the scientific process could be applied to social problems and could help society improve children’s mental health.  Outside my major, I also had the opportunity to study abroad looking at peace, conflict, and social movements in 14 European countries. Having grown to appreciate the deep social contexts for human behaviors, I decided I was interested in mental health from a person-in-environment (and environment-embodied-within-person) perspective, which ultimately brought me to social work.

After graduating college, I went to work at the national headquarters of the Devereux Foundation, the nation’s largest nonprofit provider of behavioral healthcare. My practice experience in nonprofit administration illuminated the complex reasons why a scientific approach to decision-making and research knowledge are challenging to use in practice settings.  While working, I earned my master’s degree at the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Social Research in Pennsylvania. I studied social service management, learning strategies to meet such organizational challenges. 

At the same time, Devereux was expanding in the realm of school-based and community services intended to prevent mental health problems in young people through the promotion of protective factors related to resilience. I quickly realized that the gap between research and practice in prevention is where I wanted to locate my work. I ultimately went to the University of Washington to study social welfare through an NIMH-funded training program in prevention under the mentorship of David Hawkins and colleagues at the Social Development Research Group.  Because I have an integrated passion for action-research, the translation of knowledge across paradigms, and a love for our profession, I knew an academic career where I could simultaneously commit to students, scholarship, and service would be the best path for me.

What are your research interests?
My interests are in preventing mental, emotional and behavioral problems in youth. Nearly 20 percent of youth experience a diagnosable mental illness, despite 30 years of research that has identified reliable predictors of these problems and some effective strategies for addressing these predictors before such problems actually occur. Thus, I have pursued a research agenda to determine why these effective prevention practices are not commonplace in communities and to develop and test new strategies to bridge the chasm between research and practice in the promotion of children’s mental health. 
This passion has generated three current lines of research. My first line of research focuses on contributing to the identification of predictors of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems, including person and environment interactions, while centering strength-based predictors (protective factors), and maintaining a specific focus on marginalized and understudied populations. 

My second line of research makes use of this research on the early predictors of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems to develop practice tools for the screening and monitoring of social-emotional competence in children.  I have co-developed  the Devereux Student Strengths Assessment (DESSA) and the Devereux Students Strengths Assessment – Mini, practical tools to help social workers and allied professionals measure the strengths that serve as protective factors and ultimately inhibit the development of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in young people.

My final line of research explores strategies to promote the use of data-based decision-making and evidence-based practice tools in service settings. Significant barriers persist to the adoption, integration, and sustainability of research-informed practice. I conduct research on macro-practice models, such as Communities that Care (a community mobilization and planning strategy), that guide the intentional integration of local/contextual and technical/scientific knowledge in order to facilitate the translation of knowledge between research and practice to inform decision-making. This allows practice strategies to be both inclusive of, and accountable to, the communities we serve. I hope that these discoveries will lead to advances in practice that will decrease the rates and alleviate the experience of mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in youth.

What attracted you to the Berkeley School of Social Welfare?
I was a co-captain of my rowing team in college, working hard for a national ranking of 23rd, and passionately learned many life lessons through the sport.  Even though I had retired from competition, I “moved up” in the rowing world by affiliating with the University of Washington while doing my doctoral work.  In fact, UW and Cal always seem to be competing for the national title.  Since Cal has 16 championships in my event, relative to UW’s 14, it was clear that my continued professional development was dependent on an affiliation with Cal.  So, Go Bears!

All kidding and poking at my first loves aside, I was thrilled to learn that the UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare was looking for an enthusiastic early career scholar in the area of children’s mental health. I am attracted to Berkeley’s multiple commitments to producing, disseminating, and actually using knowledge in and of practice settings, and very excited to encounter a faculty that holds a commitment to developing the research capacity of their master’s students for evidence-informed decision-making in practice contexts.  I am obviously impressed by the productivity of the faculty and the caliber of the undergraduate and graduate students at a university with such a deep tradition of excellence, accessibility, and passionate leadership for social change.  I am excited to be a part of the retention and expansion of these traditions for the future.

What are some of your goals in your role as Assistant Professor of Social Welfare?
My broad, long-term goals are to contribute to Berkeley, the community and the profession as a productive researcher, engaged colleague, enthusiastic instructor, substantive area leader and progressive agent of social change.  

Progress toward these goals will start in several ways. I want to begin by getting to know the community, forming relationships and enjoying an enthusiastic exchange of ideas in this new space. Specifically, I hope to share and further develop a vision for social work practice that integrates and transcends levels of practice (micro to macro) in my role as an instructor of SW241 (Foundation Practice).  I also intend to share my love for teaching with doctoral students in SW300 (Teaching in Social Welfare).  

Finally I hope to relocate my prevention-based research agenda into a Bay-Area context where we can work together to disrupt the causes of mental, emotional and behavioral problems in children and youth.