Lisa Zerden (PhD’09)

UNC senior associate dean and professor Lisa Zerden builds on BU experience to develop innovative health care program

Lisa ZerdenLisa Zerden (PhD’09) came to BUSSW with an interest in furthering her understanding of policies around nutrition and food insecurity, but her decision to pursue a PhD in sociology and social work “happened by taking a chance”.

“I really loved my social work education at the master’s level and knew I wanted more,” says Zerden, who received her Master in Social Work degree from UCLA. She first came to focus on health through her interest in food insecurity, and during her master’s course, focused on the paradox between obesity and food insecurity. After receiving a small grant to travel to South Africa, Zerden completed an HIV-related projected there. “This was a very meaningful project because I was born in South Africa and had not been back since immigrating to the United States as a child. I saw first-hand how the country had been ravaged by HIV and AIDS,” she said.

While struggling to find a space to explore her interest around this subject, Professor Luz Lopez invited Zerden to accompany her on a trip so Puerto Rico. During her travels, Zerden grew interested in the intersection of the AIDS epidemic and substance abuse. When she returned from Puerto Rico, she worked as a graduate assistant with the Center for Addiction Research & Services (CARS) at BUSSW for three years under the guidance of Professors Lena Lundgren, Deborah Chassler, and Luz Lopez.

During that time, Zerden said she learned the ins and outs of developing grants and program evaluation. “There’s no way I could have actually been able to write a successful federal grant and have it hit without the valuable experiences I learned through CARS and the community partnerships they developed,” she said. The $1.4 million HRSA grant allows for the development of a specialized MSW training program to prepare final year students to deliver integrated behavioral health services in primary care settings. Zerden was able to successfully receive the grant for her innovative integrative healthcare program, UNC-PrimeCare, which she started work on in 2015 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as Program Director.

“There’s a lot more recognition about the importance of treating people holistically and so, this approach is in line with social work values, recognizing that people are part of families, communities and larger systems,” says Zerden. The program trains MSW students to work with medical professionals in the assessment and treatment of children and young adults who have/are at risk for mental health or substance use disorders. In addition to field placements, students participate in seminars and workshops.