‘Science of Addiction’ explored by first-year E-town students
December 15, 2016   //   By:   //   Achievements, Campus and Community

Drug syringe and cooked heroin on spoon on a table

Elizabethtown College’s First-Year Seminar program allows professors to choose an area of focus that’s not necessarily in their research area but is still of interest to them … and to their students.

The program introduces students to collegiate academic expectations, helps them develop communication and critical analysis skills and familiarizes them with strategies for researching and writing a college-level term paper. It’s also intended to broaden their minds and assist them in thinking beyond the norm.

Tom Hagan, associate professor of chemistry, has addressed the science of addiction with his first-year students since 2001. His interest, he said, is driven by statistics. “In 2015, 28,000 people died of opiate-related deaths. That’s 75 a day,” he said, obviously moved by these numbers.

His “Gotta Have It: Exploring the Science of Addiction” classes make connections between biochemistry and other disciplines such as psychology, sociology and economy as they relate to addiction. As example, he said, the economic cost of drug addiction in the United States is estimated at $400 billion.

It gives the students the opportunity to talk to these professionals who are out there observing those in the throes of addiction.”

Connecting the science of addiction to other disciplines shows students the relevance of drugs to their daily lives. The information is critical no matter the major, Hagan said.

Alyssa VanLenten, a first-year student majoring in middle school education with a focus in English, chose Hagan’s course because “it was a little different than some of the other science classes,” she said. “It is especially relevant to education.”

She hopes this class teaches her to have more empathy when working with students in the classroom, some of whom might be fighting their own demons.  And the skills she garnered are important, overall, to her education, she said. “It was probably one of the hardest classes, and writing the paper (“Effects of Caffeine on the Developing Fetal Brain”) was challenging.”

Hagan said he wants students to come away from the class understanding that one size does not fit all in the area of addiction. Triggers can be psychological or social, perhaps. “Maybe their parents divorced. Maybe they just broke up. They can’t cope. There are a lot of reasons.” But, ultimately, there is a molecular or biochemical basis to the formation of an addiction.

Stating the Elizabethtown College philosophy to educate for a lifetime of learning, he hopes he can plant a seed to look at the subject of addiction through a different set of eyes. Hagan said he hopes the information offers something for the students to think about as they make decisions about drinking or other drug use.

To help drive the point home, the professor takes his first-year students to the Naaman Center, a professionally staffed drug and alcohol treatment program with a location in Elizabethtown.

The trip, said VanLenten was “real-world”.

“I bring in the counselors who have been in the trenches,” Hagan said. “It gives the students the opportunity to talk to these professionals who are out there observing those in the throes of addiction.”

Hagan said he’s even had students become so moved by the experience they reconsider their major. “One student,” he said, “switched to social work.”

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.