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Chance Encounter Turns into Career for Interim Dean John Clapp

  • Research

He calls it “dumb luck,” but any way you slice it, Professor John Clapp is one of the foremost addiction researchers in the field of social work, known internationally for his translational work in alcohol problem prevention.

And now he’s interim dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, leading the school into a new era in its nearly 100-year history.

“The school has been very outward focused for the last 10 years. We’ve been out in the world becoming very innovative, and we’re at the forefront of education and interdisciplinary social work,” he said. “Now is the time to continue our momentum and hone the hard work of our faculty and staff to ensure our research, education and student experience excel.”

Research for the real world

Clapp’s career in academia started as an undergraduate at San Diego State University, where he majored in psychology while taking part in a special research track. His interest in research piqued, Clapp chose the applied science of social work for his graduate studies at SDSU. He was initially interested in child abuse prevention but ended up working on an alcohol use prevention research project, which turned into a decades-long career.

“What’s interesting to me about substance use is it’s a problem that you find everywhere,” Clapp said. “It is something that seems to be ingrained in every culture. It’s a source of extreme problems – health problems, social problems related to violence, and every kind of abuse you can think of. It’s also a source of celebration and joy, so it’s an inherently complex problem.”

He earned his PhD in Social Work from The Ohio State University. Clapp returned to his hometown to teach at his alma mater SDSU, where he was a part of the faculty for 16 years and directed the Center on Alcohol and Drug Studies for 10. He then served as professor and associate dean for research and faculty development at The Ohio State University College of Social Work and as director of the university’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Drug Misuse Prevention and Recovery. In 2017, he joined the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work as professor and executive vice dean.

Clapp has published more than 100 journal articles in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Addiction, Drug and Alcohol Dependence, among many others, and was the founding co-editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Alcohol and Drug Research. He has been awarded more than $32 million in grants and contracts, including those from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, U.S. Department of Education and Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, and has been principal investigator on over 20 projects. This fall, Clapp and Adam Leventhal, professor of preventative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, will serve as co-principal investigators for a new interdisciplinary addiction research institute encouraged by the USC Office of the Provost.

Clapp is currently working on developing a mobile application that will leverage smart technology to predict when someone is drunk or is making decisions that will lead them to drunkenness. The app could also automatically order a ride to prevent drunk driving or identify the designated driver in a group. The target population for the app would be college students, one of the heaviest-drinking groups in the United States. To achieve this goal, Clapp plans to start testing the mathematical models he and his fellow researchers have developed to see if they hold up in real-world contexts.

“My research is consistent with a lot of the work that we’re doing here in that it is not easily put in a box – non-conventional approaches that are leveraging new methodologies and analytical techniques,” he said, referring to social work faculty’s establishment of the USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society and Children’s Data Network. “That’s where I see us shine as a social work program. We’re so interdisciplinary and we have so many people that are interested in smart technologies for interventions. These different kinds of methodologies to collect and analyze data puts us at the forefront of what’s going to be a new chapter in the science of social work.”

Looking ahead

In addition to supporting the problem-focused research being done by faculty at the school – perhaps best reflected in their participation in the Grand Challenges for Social Work – Clapp is also focused on enhancing the student experience.

“We’re looking at ways to make this a professional and educational experience so that at the end of the day, students are well prepared with a knowledge base they can draw on for years,” he said. “We want to build a long-term relationship with students that carries on through their career.”

Clapp has already identified some specific areas where student involvement can be enhanced, including planning school-wide events that directly affect students, like town halls and orientation.

“Through these events and activities we also want to encourage them to connect with each other earlier in their academic life that will be of assistance during their time as students and will be the basis of professional support networks that will be so helpful in their careers,” Clapp said.

Clapp also plans to encourage the development of the school’s newer degree programs – the Master of Science in Nursing Family Nurse Practitioner and Doctor of Social Work – in ways that will continue to advance the interaction of the professions of social work and nursing.

“As the nursing program moves forward, our real opportunity is to look for areas where nursing and social work naturally complement each other,” Clapp said. “In terms of development, our initial focus has been on the social determinants of health; the next stage becomes working toward transdisciplinary work. That’s where you’re taking ideas from both professions and trying to move them into a space where you’re not creating a new profession, per se, but new solutions based on what they’ve gleaned from the other, to develop better ways to address the health and wellness of individuals and communities.”

Clapp also plans to expand integration of diversity and inclusion into the fabric of the school, with an emphasis on the student experience. Renee Smith-Maddox, clinical associate professor and associate dean of diversity and inclusion, who also serves as chair of the Provost’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and co-chair of the Campus Climate Committee, will provide leadership for these efforts.

“Renee will be working on figuring out how we can do this in a way that actually changes the way that people experience each other in their professional environments and feel they have a voice that’s known, seen, heard and respected,” Clapp said.

Though Clapp knows his position isn’t permanent, he isn’t taking it for granted.

“The idea is to keep the momentum going while providing stability,” he said. “We will continue working collaboratively with our many partners, to build on the excellent foundation of our educational programs, world-class research, and service to the greater community."