Published December 7, 2017
UB nursing researcher Ellen Volpe was only 45 when she died in June in a five-car collision on the New York State Thruway. Her car was hit from behind by a box truck whose driver, police say, was shopping online.
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 and community, and contributions to an important area of psychosocial research. Volpe, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, was a teacher, a 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 2 and 3.
Colleagues at UB 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,” says Jennifer Read, 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,” and 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,” Read says. “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.”
National Institutes of Health-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. At the time of her death, Volpe was one of two MCDA KL2 scholars whose research was being supported by UB’s Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI).
Narrative exposure therapy (NET), the topic of Volpe’s research, 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,” Read says. A validated treatment for trauma and PTSD for the past 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 says. 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 shelters and refugee camps in war-torn countries. 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 explains.
While her original role in the project was to provide oversight, Read has since taken over as principal investigator. Along with 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,” Read says of Volpe, “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 says.
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.”
Timothy Murphy, CTSI director and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Medicine, says the 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.”
“The leadership of the CTSI Translational Pilot Studies Program was unanimous in supporting this important work,” Murphy notes. “In terms of translating a novel therapy into a practical intervention that stands to benefit the underserved 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.”
Adds Read: “Ellen’s dedication was so inspiring. 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.”
Editor's note: 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.