Assistant professor in School of Community Health Sciences receives Rising Researcher Award

Jennifer Pearson joined the University of Nevada, Reno as an assistant professor in 2017 and is already making impactful contributions through her research. faculty member’s work is being recognized by the 2021 Regents’ Rising Researcher Award, which acknowledges a faculty member’s “early-career accomplishments and potential for future advancement and recognition in research.”

Pearson’s research explores how tobacco, cannabis and e-cigarette policies affect consumer behavior. In her nomination of Pearson, Trudy Larson, dean of the School of Community Health Sciences at the University, noted, “Dr. Pearson is an energetic and committed young public health professional who has already contributed much to our field. She is extremely well-regarded by our faculty and students and has demonstrated substantial promise through her research accomplishments.”

Pearson elaborated on this research and the greater impact she hopes it will have on society.

What inspired you to pursue this research?

I am motivated by a desire to be useful to society. I want to contribute in my own small way to creating a world where the healthy choice is the easy choice so that people can live long, healthy, happy lives. I started my research career focusing on cigarette smoking because it is still the top cause of preventable death in the county, killing nearly half a million U.S. adults every year. Nicotine is a very difficult drug to quit, and we don’t have very good pharmacological treatments for nicotine dependence. Given these facts, tobacco control policy research seemed like a good place to start.

I expanded my work to e-cigarettes’ effect on public health because I’m also motivated by justice. Tobacco control often focuses on adolescent smoking prevention, which is incredibly important, but sometimes I feel like we write off adult smokers as lost causes, even though many of them started smoking when they were children. Unlike studying cigarette smoking, which is pretty black-and-white when it comes to public health, e-cigarettes’ effect on public health is much more complicated. The available evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are about as effective as the nicotine patch to help people quit smoking. E-cigarettes are not harmless, but they are orders of magnitude less harmful than cigarette smoking, and a smoker who switches completely to e-cigarettes rather than continuing to smoke is doing themselves a favor. I think of e-cigarettes as methadone for smokers: they are harm reducing in the right context. However, e-cigarettes are harmful for adolescents and non-smokers, and we need to do whatever we can to keep e-cigarettes away from them. How do we thread this needle using policy and product regulation? I spend a lot of time trying to answer this question.

Now that recreational cannabis is legal in Nevada and more and more states are joining us every year, I’m starting to apply my tobacco control research expertise to cannabis. A lot of the questions and methods are the same, but understanding how to maximize benefits and minimize harms of recreational cannabis legalization is even more complicated than trying to understand how e-cigarettes affect public health.

What does this award mean to you and for your work?

It’s great to be recognized. Thanks to the UNR leadership and the Regents for the honor! This award highlights the applied, practical research that my graduate students, colleagues and I are doing to improve public health in Nevada. I hope this award will bring a little more attention to the outstanding research and applied work that we are doing in the School of Community Health Sciences.

What future plans do you have for your scholarly work/research?

I have so many plans! I was recently appointed by Governor Sisolak to the Cannabis Compliance Board. I hope my service on that board will help me identify questions that are top-of-mind for regulators in Nevada so that my lab can conduct research to inform their decision making. I hope to conduct experiments this summer testing ways to modify edible cannabis product packaging to help consumers judge how much they need to eat and anticipate how long they will be impaired. This month, my lab is recruiting people ages 65+ to a pilot study to understand the psychological and physical impact of cannabis use in this age group. Older adults report the largest increase in cannabis use of any age group as a result of legalization: 200-400%, depending on how you measure it!  There is an important opportunity to scale up to national data collection. Finally, colleagues in Arizona and California and I are finishing up a randomized controlled trial testing whether Chantix, the most effective medication we have to help people quit smoking, could be safely and effectively offered as an over-the-counter medication. Chantix’s patent expired last year, so it’s possible that the two main barriers to using Chantix – cost and need for a prescription – could be eliminated. I have lots of other plans – probably too many plans! – but those are the big ones.

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