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PURE Award winners 2016: Caitlin Foster, BSc

Psychology Honours student evaluates an Alberta Health Services program for older adults dealing with substance abuse

Caitlin Foster appreciates "the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the research process" afforded by the PURE award. Photo by Nikki Reimer, University of Calgary

By Jennifer Robitaille

The University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategic statement reads “students will thrive in programs made rich by research and hands-on experiences”. The integration of teaching and research is a priority in this vision and the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience — also known as PURE — is an important initiative that reflects this commitment.

Each year undergraduates can apply for the prestigious PURE Awards, which provide financial research support to some of the university’s most promising students over the spring and summer months.

The program is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to develop research projects, undertake independent research and contribute to knowledge in their respective fields.

In this Q&A series, we hear from the 2016 PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts.

Name: Caitlin Foster, BSc

Degree sought: BA Honours in Psychology

What is your research topic?

Substance abuse in older adults. The project is an evaluation of a program operating out of Alberta Health Services called the Substance Abuse in Later Life (SAILL) program. The program caters to clients aged 60 and over and uses a Harm Reduction model to approach problems of alcohol and/or medication misuse. Our study seeks to examine how substance abuse presents in the older adult population and how successful abstinence programs are for those who seek treatment.

What attracted you to this particular research project?

I’ve been interested in geropsychology ever since I took a course on Social and Clinical Aspects of Aging with my supervisor, Dr. Candace Konnert. Her passion for this area of research was passed on to me. I also find substance abuse disorders fascinating and was interested to see how they present in the older adult population and how this may differ from youth or younger adults experiencing substance abuse problems.

Why is this research important?

Older adults are a diverse group that has been consistently underrepresented in psychological research. This, coupled with a growing population of baby boomers reaching this age group, means that we will need more care providers and researchers catering to this population, which is expected to double in Canada in the next two decades. It is important to remember that while neurocognitive decline may be a main area of concern for this population, there are also other mental health concerns to address, such as substance abuse.

What do you hope to achieve with this research?

By examining the records of older adults with substance abuse who have gone through the program we hope to discover patterns in who is more likely to complete the program successfully. Often older adults are lumped in with younger adults or excluded from substance abuse research altogether so it will be exciting to see what we find in this population in a study that specifically focuses on therapeutic outcomes for this population.

What do you like most about your field of study?

I think most people who go into the field of psychology do so because they want to help people. While that goal remains, I think what keeps people in this field and encourages them to continue their pursuit of the study of the human brain and human behavior beyond the undergraduate level is an intense curiosity about why it is that we do the things we do.

What advice would you give to other students considering applying for PURE Awards next year?

If you are considering a future career in research, I would highly recommend applying for a PURE Award since it gives you the opportunity to gain first-hand experience in the research process. For Honours students in Psychology, it is a wonderful opportunity to get a head start on your Honours thesis and explore areas of inquiry that you might not be able to otherwise.