High school student Alexus McBride is competing at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair with a project completed at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center.

“The Addiction Recovery Research Center is a very neat environment in that it treats addiction for what it really is — a disease,” said McBride, a Rocky Mount senior who splits her schooling between the Roanoke Valley Governor’s School for Science and Technology and Franklin County High School. “It’s been an honor to be involved in cutting-edge research that is attempting, and succeeding, to treat a very common disease in our culture.”

Under the mentorship of Amanda Quisenberry, a postdoctoral associate at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, McBride contributed to the creation of a social networking website called the Social Interactome. The Social Interactome was developed under the guidance of Warren Bickel, the director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center. The National Institutes of Health awarded Bickel a $1.7 million grant to study how social media interaction could help people recovering from substance abuse. 

The site, an altered Facebook divided into two different types of networks, allows the scientists to analyze how computer networks combine with various social interactions to influence engagement and behavior of individuals in recovery from substance abuse.

“Understanding the relationship between social media interactions and relapse can help us understand if an easily available forum for support and treatment options will facilitate recovery and help prevent relapse,” said Quisenberry. “Our research will potentially determine the types of network connections, posted content, and personal characteristics of participants that most contribute to relapse prevention.”

The researchers compared how people in recovery from addiction fared in differently designed networks — would one type of topology of social arrangement help people from relapsing?

They tested their hypothesis that a clustered lattice network would better engage participants than a small world network. A clustered lattice network allows users to cross-share information across the group, as opposed to the small world network, which operates in smaller jumps. One person cannot share information with the group at once, but instead must trickle it out through a closely related neighbor.

“Participants in the clustered lattice network reported fewer relapses, were more active in the social network, and were more engaged,” said McBride. She also noted that the specific personality traits of the 256 participants split between the two networks make a large contribution to the effectiveness of the networks. “Some people will share things more often, or be more interested in completing activities shared by other participants.”

The project, titled, “Network Typology and Recovery Phenotype Effects on Social Media Engagement,” earned McBride several regional awards at the Western Virginia Science and Engineering Fair in March. The honors included first place in the Behavioral and Social Sciences category, as well as recognition and prizes from the Office of Naval Research, the United States Air Force, and the American Psychological Association. McBride also qualified to complete at the state level, and she was also awarded one of two grand prize packages, which secured her spot at the international fair this week in Phoenix, Arizona.

“It is completely surreal. I never thought I’d be able to complete a project of the caliber to attend the International Science and Engineering Fair,” said McBride, who plans to attend the University of Virginia School of Nursing this fall. “I’ve been very blessed to be able to work with the Addiction Recovery Research Center; I could not have accomplished any of this without them.”

On April 9, McBride won first place in her category of Behavioral and Social Science at the Virginia State Science and Engineering Fair.

“Alexus is an outstanding student who contributed substantially to our project,” said Bickel, who is also the inaugural Virginia Tech Carilion Behavior Research Professor. “I am so pleased that at Virginia Tech students at all levels can be involved and contribute.”

The scientists will continue to study how social media interactions influence addiction recovery. They are currently conducting the first replication of their experiments with another 256 people in recovery. The researchers will repeat the experiments several times, and they are actively recruiting another 256 participants in recovery.

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