Published November 9, 2017
She was developing a promising treatment for PTSD among urban youth when tragedy struck. Now her research partners are working to keep her legacy alive.
Ellen Volpe, 45, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, died in a five-car collision on the New York State Thruway near Buffalo in June. Her car was hit from behind by a box truck.
Not only did that senseless tragedy cut short the life of a beloved and highly respected scholar, it precluded a lifetime to come of service to family, community and an important area of psychosocial research. Volpe, assistant professor in UB’s School of Nursing, was a teacher, a community volunteer who helped at-risk youth in urban neighborhoods, and an investigator with a promising future in clinical research. She was also a devoted wife and mother to two sons, ages two and three.
Colleagues at the University at Buffalo have chosen to carry on her professional legacy by completing a research project that was left unfinished at the time of her death.
“She was kind, a good person, and really devoted to the research she was doing,” said Jennifer Read, PhD, a professor in UB’s Department of Psychology who was a mentor on Volpe’s KL2 research project, “Narrative Exposure Therapy: Treating violence-related PTSD among low-income, urban adolescents.” Read is now leading the project.
“One of the things about Ellen that so many people have commented on is that she really was devoted to this population,” said Read. “In academia, it’s easy to lose sight of what you’re doing research for. You get focused on papers and grants and conferences, but when I talked to Ellen about her research she never lost sight of the fact that she wanted to do this because she wanted to help these kids.”
NIH-funded KL2 Mentored Career Development Awards (MCDA) are training grants that match young investigators with experienced faculty to advance promising lines of inquiry in clinical and translational science. Volpe was one of two MCDA KL2 scholars whose research was being supported by UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) at the time of the accident.
“Ellen was determined to succeed,” said Margarita L. Dubocovich, PhD, SUNY Distinguished Professor and the KL2 MCDA program lead. “The tragic loss of such an accomplished scholar left a void in our hearts and in all the initiatives she was pursuing, particularly on the dialogues with the communities, as her passion for helping the underserved and improving their health was second to none.”
Narrative exposure therapy (NET) is an approach to treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) premised on the idea that “the reason people struggle after they have a trauma is that their experience of the trauma has not been well-integrated,” said Read. A validated treatment for trauma and PTSD for the last 15 years or so, “narrative therapy in general is a therapeutic approach to having people tell their stories in a way that at least makes linear sense to them,” she said. Exposure therapy helps victims make sense of their trauma by sharing their experience with others, “so they realize that they can have this experience of remembering it and that they’re going to be ok.”
NET was originally developed as an intervention to treat refugee populations in war-torn countries, not in clinics but in shelters and refugee camps. Volpe’s novel approach was to translate that warzone strategy to an urban setting.
“What Ellen hypothesized is that we can try this intervention with another population that we know is at risk for trauma, and that’s urban youth. They are facing a number of different kinds of stressors, but significant stressors, nonetheless,” Read explained.
While oversight was her original role in the project, Read has since take over as principal investigator. Along with two of her doctoral students, Lauren Rodriguez and Tiffany Jenzer, she has become fully involved in the hands-on preparations to roll out the therapy at Compass House, a homeless shelter and resource center for at-risk youth in Buffalo.
“There are so many tragic dimensions to her death,” said Read, “but one of them, from a professional standpoint, which we felt we could actually do something about, was that she wanted to see if this worked — if it was something that can actually help these kids. We felt like we could help advance at least a little piece of what she was trying to do if we could see that to fruition.”
Colleen Quinn, a post-baccalaureate research support specialist in the psychology department, was a summer iSEED (Institute for Strategic Enhancement of Educational Diversity) student who had just started working on the project when Volpe died. She has chosen to stay on as a volunteer. “We sort of have her on loan for a while before she goes on to other things,” Read said.
Volpe’s NET project would not have proceeded without the support of the Clinical and Translational Science Institute, according to Read. “I was not aware of anybody who had plans to see this through. It was a training grant and of course Ellen was a trainee and if she’s not there there’s no grant to be had.”
“This project aligns well with the vision of the CTSI to perform research to improve the health of our community and focus efforts on reducing health disparities and engage vulnerable populations in clinical research,” said Timothy Murphy, MD, CTSI Director and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine. “The leadership of the CTSI Translational Pilot Studies Program was unanimous in supporting this important work. In terms of translating a novel therapy into a practical intervention that stands to benefit the under-served members of our community, and employing an interdisciplinary, team science approach, this work represents the very best of what the CTSI can do to improve health outcomes in Western New York. I am really pleased that Dr. Read has taken the initiative to continue this important project.”
“Ellen’s dedication was so inspiring,” said Read, “we just want to see that inspiration come to something, in some small way. We’ll all feel this is slightly less tragic if we’re able to at least finish what she started and then see if there’s anything else we may be able to do to grow this.”
A GoFundMe page has been set up with a focus on contributing toward Volpe’s sons’ education. The School of Nursing also has set up the Ellen M. Volpe Memorial Fund. Gifts can be mailed to University at Buffalo Foundation, P.O. Box 730, Buffalo, NY, 14226-0730.