Shelby E. McDonald, left, and Jamie L. Cage.
Shelby E. McDonald, left, and Jamie L. Cage received awards from the National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Programs.

A ‘life-changing award’: Two VCU social work researchers receive NIH grants that ease student debt

The Loan Repayment Programs help repay debt in return for a commitment to engage in research that is relevant to the National Institutes of Health.

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Like many of the students they’re teaching, junior faculty several years into their academic careers are also carrying college loan debts. 

For two Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work faculty, relief has come in the form of awards from the National Institutes of Health Loan Repayment Programs. Established in 1993 to encourage researchers to stay in higher education and forgo the temptation of higher-paying private-sector jobs, the program will repay up to $100,000, over two years, of an awardee’s personal student debt in return for a commitment to engage in NIH mission-relevant research.

“It’s a big financial deal for me and everyone else whose applications were funded,” said Jamie L. Cage, Ph.D., an assistant professor beginning her fourth year with the school. 

That includes her colleague, Shelby E. McDonald, Ph.D., who received tenure and a promotion to associate professor over the summer and is starting her sixth year at the school.

“It’s not the biggest award I’ve received in terms of dollars received, but definitely the most life-changing award, given that it will alleviate the significant financial burden of my student loan payments,” she said.

The award is particularly significant for someone in social work, Cage said. 

“We regularly hear people discuss the insane amount of student loan debt they’ve acquired,” she said. “For some people it’s disproportionate to their salary, and they may spend the majority of their adult life paying back their educational loans. Aside from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, there aren’t many additional opportunities for people in our field to earn support paying back their loans.”

As notification of their respective awards came through, the two immediately shared it with each other.  

“We had been on this journey together,” Cage said of McDonald. 

McDonald said she “cried happy tears and felt an immediate sense of relief.”

“I probably refreshed my application status about 20 times, just to make sure the ‘funded’ status didn’t go away,” she said.

Cage’s project, “Examining the Effects of Generational Adverse Childhood Experiences on the Mental Health and Substance Use of Black Adolescents,” will expand her previous body of research work, largely focused on the child welfare system, to focus more broadly on childhood trauma and adversity. Data already has been collected through a research team based at VCU’s Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, led by Faye Belgrave, Ph.D., the center’s director and a professor in the Department of Psychology

“Over the next two years, my research activities will center on health disparities related to mental health and substance use for Black adolescents,” Cage said. “Specifically focusing on how trauma and adversities experienced by both the adolescent (personal trauma) and their parent/guardian (generational trauma) are associated with the adolescent’s mental health and substance use, and examining how resource characteristics and modifiable behaviors related to educational attainment and experiences might serve as protective factors that mitigate the effects of trauma.”  

The long-term goal, she said, is to develop interventions within school systems.  

“In regard to the [National Institutes of Health], it does help to know that some areas of my research are of interest to certain NIH divisions,” Cage said. “This opens the door for potential grant funding through traditional avenues.” 

McDonald’s project, “Investigating the Impact of Human-Animal Interaction on Mental Health in Gender and Sexual Minority Youth,” will build on a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development developmental grant that studied the effect of human-animal interaction on youth who had been maltreated and their caregivers. 

Gender and sexual minority youth, McDonald said, have disproportionately high rates of exposure to adverse childhood experiences. Data will come from the LGBTQ+ Youth Supports Study — funded in 2018 by a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund award — a collaboration with co-investigators M. Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., and Traci Wike, Ph.D. 

“My prior findings indicate that the protective effects of human-animal interaction are more pronounced among young people who experience multiple forms of victimization,” McDonald said. “I’m expanding on this finding to examine how this impacts relations between gender and sexual minority stress and various aspects of positive and negative adjustment in emerging adulthood.” 

McDonald plans to apply for another National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant in November, proposing a longitudinal study of reciprocal relations among minority stress, human-animal interaction and positive and negative adjustment.

“Our qualitative data suggest that many youth prioritize the benefits of human-animal interaction over the stressors, such as the financial impacts of having a pet,” she said. “However, LGBTQ+ young people are already vulnerable to experiencing financial stress and housing instability; it’s important that longitudinal research consider the benefits and risks associated with living with companion animals concurrently, so that we can identify malleable targets for interventions.”