Social work PhD student Graham DiGuiseppi leverages machine learning and social network analysis to develop new substance use prevention strategies and treatments.
Second year PhD social work student Graham DiGuiseppi
Based on the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness’s 2018 report, 38% of homeless youth reported using hard drugs within the past year. While only 13% of homeless youth cite their own alcohol or drug use as a reason for experiencing homelessness, a multitude of factors contribute to youth homelessness, and more needs to be done to understand who is at risk of experiencing homelessness. Additionally, since it is difficult to obtain accurate, up-to-date data on the concurrence of homelessness and substance use, further research is needed to better understand the multiplicity of risks associated with homelessness and substance use.
Second-year USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work PhD student Graham DiGuiseppi, whose passion for health promotion among vulnerable youth has driven him to the intersection of social work and computer science, is combating these issues head on. He recently shed light on his background, experience at USC thus far, and plans for the future.
USC CAIS: Tell us a bit about your background.
Graham DiGuiseppi: I grew up with a younger brother who struggled with debilitating mental health issues. Witnessing how his condition, and the inability of families like mine to deal with it, spurred my interest in mental health. This led me to study psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Central Florida.
As I worked through my program, I became increasingly interested in the intersection of mental health and substance use, so after completing my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Philadelphia to conduct research on substance use treatment at the Treatment Research Institute (TRI).
After about three years, I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, where I worked as a research coordinator in the School of Public Health at Brown University. I helped investigate not only the many causes and consequences of substance use, but also innovative treatments for substance use disorders. I also had the opportunity to earn my master’s degree in behavioral and social health sciences at Brown while working full-time there.
USC CAIS: What factors influenced your decision to pursue your PhD at USC?
GD: Over the course of my experience at TRI and Brown, I had the opportunity to interact with diverse groups of vulnerable young people—from adolescents who were court-ordered to attend substance abuse treatment, to college students engaging in risky alcohol use. It was the connections I formed with these young people, and the potential to intervene in a way that supports positive, healthy development, that compelled me to conduct my own research. By pursuing a PhD in social work at USC, I knew I would have the opportunity to tackle pressing social issues and work directly with underserved communities. Operating within the joint frameworks of social work and other systems — including public health, policymaking, government and health care — also appealed to me insofar as it would enable me to affect more comprehensive change.
Additionally, I was drawn to USC for its location in the heart of Los Angeles, as I recognized that it presented a unique opportunity to do community-based research to mitigate health disparities among the homeless in a city facing one of the most serious housing crises in the country.
What’s more, in my research at Brown, I became interested in social network analysis. I learned about Eric Rice’s social network analysis applications in addressing youth homelessness in L.A. and hoped that I would be able to work with him at USC. Similarly, after learning about his research on mindfulness-based substance use interventions, I was interested in the prospect of working with Jordan Davis, as well.
Considering that my primary interest lies in finding evidence-based solutions to substance use and mental health disparities among underserved populations, USC seemed like the ideal place to pursue my PhD.
USC CAIS: What have been the most rewarding parts of your experience at USC thus far?
GD: I’ve really enjoyed collaborating on field-based research projects with my advisors and fellow students.
For example, I’ve helped Dr. Davis recruit participants for a pilot study examining the effectiveness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention for young adults who engage in substance use and who have suffered various types of trauma.
With Dr. Rice, I’ve helped collect and analyze data for an AI-based intervention that seeks to increase HIV testing among young adults experiencing homelessness. The study is testing how different algorithms can identify individuals who may be best positioned to disseminate sexual health information within their social networks.
I’ve also been helping a fellow PhD student, Chyna Hill, collect data for her dissertation investigating racial and ethnic disparities in service usage among homeless youth.
USC CAIS: What are you most looking forward to in your second year?
GD: In my second year, I’ll have the opportunity to participate in tutorials, which consist of one-on-one research training with faculty members.
I’m excited to work with Associate Professor Benjamin Henwood, with whom I will examine approaches to supportive housing among transition-aged youth, and Assistant Professor Monica Perez Jolles, whose work is concerned with designing complex health interventions and disseminating best practices into community-based medical settings.
USC CAIS: What do you find compelling about operating between the worlds of social work and computer science?
GD: Growing up, I never really considered myself a tech-savvy person — actually, I almost failed a computer science course I took in high school. However, over the years I have become more comfortable working with data and statistics and have recognized that computer science can augment research and advance the goals of social work.
The intersection of social work and computer science is rife with potential for the exchange of knowledge, skillsets and frameworks for approaching various problems. I value interdisciplinary work because it can lead to more innovative solutions to complex problems.
For example, a recent paper I was working on with my advisors had an enormous dataset. I was interested in identifying the most important factors that predict adolescents’ first episode of homelessness after substance use treatment. We added a machine learning component to our analysis and I think it improved our understanding of what was going on in the data.
USC CAIS: What advice would you offer to someone considering pursuing a PhD in social work?
GD: Pursuing a PhD in social work is probably one of the biggest challenges you’ll ever face. Not only are you committing yourself to several years of intense study, but you are striving to understand and offer solutions for some of society’s most challenging problems.
Most people who go into social work have a great deal of compassion for others. My advice is to let that compassion drive the work that you do. But also, don’t forget that amidst all the pressure and responsibility you have to have compassion for yourself, too.