On Saturday, Associate Provost Sheryl Hemkin invoked science to combat the societal impact of drug addiction, at a workshop at Mount Vernon Nazarene University (MVNU), part of the University’s Lecture Artist series.
Hemkin’s talk focused on the scientific basis of nicotine and opioid addiction. She used animations of practical models to illustrate complex processes, such as a baseball “molecule” fitting into a “receptor” glove.
“[The workshop] was a good step to take because a number of people in our community are struggling with the negative impact of drug use and we need to make a greater push to help with this problem,” Hemkin said. “Even if you don’t see or feel evidence of drug use in the people you contact day to day, it negatively impacts the social and economic fabric of the place we live.”
Hemkin’s lecture has its origins in the fall of 2018, when her Chemistry and Biochemistry Seminar (CHEM 401) class partnered with the Knox County Health Department and St. Vincent de Paul School for a community-engaged learning project. The students designed educational modules covering sugar, caffeine, alcohol and nicotine, which they presented in 45-minute lessons to the sixth graders at the school.
“We start with sugar, then we talk about caffeine, and caffeine can fit in the normal [adenosine] binder,” Hemkin said. “How things like drugs, things that wouldn’t naturally be found in the body, have to co-opt [a] system that already exists in the body.”
While Hemkin didn’t discuss opioids with the sixth-graders, she incorporated the same principles and lesson structure into her lecture at MVNU. She described Naloxone, a life-saving drug that blocks heroin, as using the same mechanism that caffeine uses to block sleep-inducing adenosine molecules.
According to MVNU’s website, the Lecture Artist Series was intended “to start a community conversation on campus with the goal of extending the dialogue to Chapel, classrooms and homes.” The series was organized by Paul Madtes, a biology professor at MVNU.
Hemkin said that many in attendance at the talk were social workers looking to gain a better understanding of how to help the people in their care. She relayed the story of one woman who works for Meeting Point, an organization that helps people struggling with past addictions. The woman had taken college courses on the subject but had never been able to visualize it chemically until hearing Hemkin put it into concrete terms.
“Thinking about it [with], for example, baseball glove animations and stuff like that, she said, ‘It made a lot more sense, I can kind of picture it,” Hemkin said.
Hemkin focused her lecture on distributing scientific information that could change the way people think about addiction. By understanding addiction from a biological perspective, Hemkin said, people can understand the difficulty of “fighting your body.”
“When you don’t think of it [the body] as such a black box, I’m hoping it might make people think twice [before using],” she said.