Chris Kahler came to Brown in 1997 for the clinical psychology internship he needed to finish his Ph.D. at Rutgers. Since then he’s had at least five more titles at Brown, but his newest role at the University is by far his biggest. Now a full professor, Kahler has become the inaugural chair of a new department: Behavioral and Social Sciences.
The department’s seven tenure-track and 21 research faculty members, as members of the former Department of Community Health, have long been tackling pressing issues such as addiction, healthy eating, physical activity, and the risky behaviors that result in the spread of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. But as one of four newly split-off departments, rather than a section, the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences can more fully encompass the bigger picture painted every day by the choices people make — or fail to make — about their health.
“Those areas are the strengths we start with, and we can build outward from there,” Kahler said. “How do we help people become educated and competent about their health in multiple ways and able to act on that knowledge effectively? That involves education, intervention and policy all working together on both the individual level and on larger communities and societies.”
The department also plans to offer graduate degrees. By early summer the first masters-level class had already enrolled 11 students. Within a few years, Kahler said, doctoral level degrees should also be on offer.
Kahler’s expertise is in addiction, particularly smoking and drinking. Brown’s longstanding reputation for research in that area is what made him eager to come to Providence 14 years ago.
“There’s such a long history of people in addictions research being linked to Brown in some way or another,” he said. “When you go to meetings you find so many people who have been though Brown as either fellows or interns, or people who were faculty here, or people who were mentored by someone here. My [Rutgers] mentor Barbara McCrady had been here and helped set up some of the treatment programs at Butler Hospital. It was a place that everyone in my graduate program had on the top of their list for internship.”
Fast forward to today, and Kahler is working on projects that carry his signature interest in treating people with multiple conditions. One study, for example, is a randomized controlled trial to test whether the drug naltrexone, which suppresses alcohol cravings, can help people quit smoking and also curb their heavy drinking.
“We want to see whether or not we can help people avoid those lapses that happen to smoking when they are drinking but also give them a chance to be on an effective pharmacotherapy for alcohol consumption,” he said. “They can get a chance to sample what it’s like to drink less for eight to ten weeks and decide whether the changes that happen are something that they want to maintain — whether they felt better and healthier when they were drinking less.”
In another study, he’s testing whether the interventional technique of motivational interviewing can dissuade HIV-positive people from drinking too heavily.
“Heavy drinking has particularly negative consequences for people with HIV,” he said. “They might not be taking medications regularly, or they may be engaging in more unsafe sex. Also, the more people drink the more it taxes their liver. HIV medications are also processed by the liver. If people are doing both, they may be putting a particular strain on the liver, which can be connected to poor cognitive function over time.”
In both cases, the power of behavior in health is clear. People are not merely passive victims of germs and their genes. Even if they sometimes need medications to help fight addictions, conscious choice ultimately determines whether they will get healthy or get worse.
Under Kahler’s guidance, Brown is making the conscious choice to become an even greater source, at a department level, of new knowledge and talent for helping people live better.