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Faculty Profile: Hortensia Amaro

Hortensia Amaro knows first-hand the struggles that immigrants and minorities living in urban areas encounter as they try to carve out a life in a new, complex — and sometimes unwelcoming — country. At the age of ten, Amaro's family forfeited everything to flee their native Cuba for a public housing development in Los Angeles.

"My research has focused on the unique features of urban life that affect public health, from poverty, including reproductive health, adolescent pregnancy, childhood asthma, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, and HIV."

There, Amaro became keenly aware of the obstacles that people in urban communities had to overcome to access housing, health care, education, and support services for a variety of public health issues, including substance abuse, domestic violence, and prenatal care.

"My experiences growing up motivated me to pursue education so that I could help improve the health of communities through applied research," Amaro explained.

"My research has focused on the unique features of urban life that affect public health, from poverty, including reproductive health, adolescent pregnancy, childhood asthma, substance abuse, mental health, domestic violence, and HIV."

After receiving her doctorate in psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles, Amaro headed east to run her own research consulting business in Boston. In 1983, she joined the faculty at Boston University, where she was professor of social and behavioral sciences and maternal and child health in the school of public health.

In 2002, she joined the faculty of Northeastern as distinguished professor of counseling and applied educational psychology, and director of the interdisciplinary Institute on Urban Health Research.

"I was very impressed by Northeastern's long history of educating immigrants, its practice-based philosophy of dealing with real-world problems, and its commitment to the urban community," she said. "That combination is really important, particularly in public health."

Amaro's research has been the subject of more than seventy scientific publications on epidemiological and community-based studies of alcohol and drug use among adolescents and adults, on the effectiveness of HIV/AIDS prevention programs, and on substance-abuse treatment of women.

She has been the principal investigator in more than twenty-eight public health research grants — totaling more than $28 million. Her extensive body of research on improving the connections between public health research and practice has resulted in enormous societal advancements.

The findings of one of Amaro's recent studies, "Co-Occurring Disorders and History of Trauma," which studied the effectiveness of current treatment of women substance abusers who have a history of trauma, has reshaped the intervention and treatment programs at the Boston Public Health Commission.

The vast majority of women in treatment for substance-abuse addiction have a history of violence committed against them by their partners or family members," said Amaro. "By finding their underlying trauma that caused the addiction, we have shown greater improvements in mental health and reductions in drug abuse."

The Mom's Project, one of her community-based intervention programs for pregnant addicted women, received national recognition from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as part of its Models that Work Campaign. Entre Familia, a residential treatment program for Latino women and children founded by Amaro, has been lauded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Despite her professional success and the tremendous impact her research has had on the lives of literally thousands of people, Amaro remains characteristically modest. "I am not special," she said. "I was fortunate to have people who believed in me, and in the worth and dignity of every individual.

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Hortensia Amaro, Director of Institute on Urban Health Research, Distinguished Professor
Institute on Urban Health Research
The Mom's Project
  This article appeared in the Winter 2004 edition of Pathways: the Leadership Campaign.          

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