Researchers to develop early warning system for emerging substance use threats

The $1 million National Science Foundation grant will fund project to better identify and respond to problems like the fentanyl overdose crisis

January 4, 2024

By Melissa Krug

Editor’s note: This story originally appeared on Penn State News 

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A newly awarded $1 million U.S. National Science Foundation grant will allow a group of multidisciplinary researchers at Penn State, in collaboration with Georgia Tech, to develop an early warning system (EWS) for identifying and responding to emerging substance use threats such as the rise of fentanyl overdoses in our communities.   

According to primary investigator, Qiushi Chen, assistant professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering and Consortium on Substance Use and Addiction (CSUA)-affiliated faculty member, the project will take a multidisciplinary approach to create a data-driven analytical framework.   

After working together on several seed grant projects funded through the Social Science Research Institute, Qiushi and several colleagues said they hope that developing an EWS tool could potentially help policymakers and other stakeholders to identify high-risk areas of emerging substance use issues. This project aims to lay the groundwork for implementation.   

“In this four-year project, I am thrilled to work with a dream team of my amazing colleagues across different disciplines ranging from system engineering, machine learning, criminology, sociology and health economics, as well as practitioners who are at the frontline of compiling the intel about the emerging drug trends to serve the local stakeholders and communities,” Chen said.   

According to Chen and his team, the goal of developing the tool is to understand the patterns and the driving factors behind substance use. Then local and state stakeholders will develop and utilize strategies to respond to them. The researchers plan for the tool to use geospatial data and predictive modeling to analyze data from different sectors like law enforcement, health care, prevention and public health to get a better understanding of the spread of substance use impacts in communities and to develop comprehensive solutions to those problems.    

Through using publicly available data sets and additional data from local partners, the team aims to develop and demonstrate a proof of concept of their EWS framework. The team will also collaborate with outside stakeholders from two High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) programs and the National Emerging Threats Initiative by seeking their feedback as potential users of the EWS framework. 

Glenn Sterner, assistant professor of criminal justice at Penn State Abington, a CSUA co-funded faculty member and co-primary investigator on the study, said he hopes that the study will provide the knowledge necessary for translation of these findings to address emerging substance use issues across communities. 

“Right now, there isn’t a systematic infrastructure in Pennsylvania to support comprehensive data collection and application of results, but other partners at the New England HIDTA have been collecting and linking the data at the local level for a while now, which can be used to enrich the public data sources for developing the EWS tool,” Sterner said. “If we can demonstrate the use of the proposed analytical framework in the case study in this project, it has a great generalizability and can be easily applied to other states and settings, including Pennsylvania.”  

Sterner and the rest of the team plan to utilize an advisory board of partners and other stakeholders to test the viability of the tool. Then the team can assist in putting together intervention strategies to target localities that are currently experiencing an uptick in substance use-related issues. Potential intervention strategies could include enhancing drug testing, first responder training, targeted prevention programming, substance use treatment preparedness and targeted harm reduction efforts.   

Other researchers on the project include Paul Griffin, professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering and CSUA director; Holly Nguyen, associate professor of sociology, criminology and public policy; Joel Segel, associate professor of health policy and administration and member of the CSUA executive committee; and Weijun Xie, assistant professor in the school of industrial and systems engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 


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