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Data-Driven Research with UConn’s Dr. Jane Ungemack

Data-Driven Research with UConn’s Dr. Jane Ungemack – UConn Today

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July 7, 2022

Dr. Jane Ungemack has studied substance abuse and at-risk youth since joining the University of Connecticut Medical School in 1995.

Jane A. Ungemack, Dr.PH, assistant professor of public health sciences at UConn Health. (Photo by Janine Gelineau/UConn Health)

Dr. Jane Ungemack has studied substance abuse and at-risk youth since joining the University of Connecticut Medical School in 1995. The majority of her work has been done in collaboration with state agencies, supporting their work and testing the effectiveness of potential solutions to difficult public health challenges. UConn Today took the opportunity to chat with Ungemack as she celebrates her retirement and looks back on more than 40 years of data-driven public health research.

Q: How did you become interested in public health and addiction research?

I graduated with my undergraduate degree in 1972 and my first job was at Columbia University in their School of Public Health, working on one of the very first studies of adolescent drug use! Alcohol and marijuana. It was national, it became international.

I loved the research. This motivated me to pursue my doctorate in public health. I started at UConn in 1995 as an assistant professor and stayed on as an assistant professor. Writing reports and working with state agencies does not commend itself for peer review and promotion, even though I have been PI on over 40 projects. I was very good at getting funding.

I got my doctorate in 1991, had kids in the 1980s, and worked part-time, but I’ve researched nonstop since I started at Columbia University.

Q: What has been the main focus of your work over the years?

I am a health services researcher who studies behavioral health, specifically substance abuse, adolescent substance abuse, and substance abuse prevention. I used my research skills to apply myself to immediate social problems and seek solutions to those problems. I collect all kinds of data: surveys, treatment data, mortality data, qualitative interview data.

Instead of waiting decades to apply research to social problems, my work aims to inform practice in the short term. There is more immediate gratification here!

Q: Which CT state agencies have you worked with?

The Department of Children and Families (DCF), Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (DMHAS), Office of Early Childhood (OEC) and the Judiciary. My work has focused on needs assessments to estimate the need for addiction treatment services, evaluations of innovative services to improve treatment recovery, collection of relevant data to prevent negative childhood experiences. I have also worked with the courts, DCF, and DMHAS to assess interagency collaboration to prevent the removal of children from their parents due to substance abuse.

Currently, I am funded by the DMHAS Center for Prevention and Statistics to promote the use of behavioral health data in the state. This puts UConn Health’s Department of Public Health Sciences and our researchers at the center of the state’s efforts to reduce substance abuse.

Q: What part of your job are you most proud of?

One of which I am most proud is the teen substance abuse program “Strengthening Communities for Youth”. We tested two models of adolescent substance abuse treatment that DCF adapted for the Connecticut service system. Both of these models were successful, innovative, home-based, family-involved models that became the core of DCF’s adolescent treatment services. DCF has been incredibly innovative in developing interventions in collaboration with model developers. In my opinion, it has one of the best teenage drug treatment programs in the country; I am proud to be part of this team.

Q: What has motivated you all these years?

I like the problem-solving aspects of research. Never boring, you always have to be creative and think outside the box. I have always been stimulated. And the work is so satisfying. I see my data being transformed into new programs, or supporting policy: for me, it is really serving the needs of the public.

Q: Do you think there is another opportunity for data researchers to collaborate with the state?

Yes. Agencies need analysis and evaluations to support policy and decision-making. Increasingly, federal funders are pushing states toward data-driven decision-making. You need to justify the need for funds they could provide with good concrete numbers. This creates more and more opportunities for state agencies to collaborate with academics who have the data skills to support them.

Win competitive federal funds

Former DCF Director of Substance Abuse Services, Peter Panzarella, said of Dr Ungemack: “It has been a great benefit to DCF and the State of CT to have been able to win competitive federal funds from from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Administration for Children and Families and others Her expertise as an evaluator in the field of adolescent substance use disorders has resulted in the DCF receiving millions dollars in funding to implement and evaluate evidence-based approaches in TC She has also been involved in the evaluation of programs and services for parents with substance use and protection disorders from childhood.

This has enabled a number of innovative projects at DCF and more competitive federal funds. She was a key member of a group made up of DCF, DMHAS and Judiciary.
Jane was a great collaborator and generous with staff and resources. She helped work with stakeholders from state agencies, vendors and other academics,” Panzarella said.