- Associated Press - Saturday, March 30, 2019

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari loves his older daughter, her homemade spaghetti and her pursuit of life-changing science.

And he was really looking forward to seeing her when she traveled to the University of Kentucky campus last month to give a presentation about her addiction research.

But, Calipari tweeted afterward, he chose to skip her talk.

“I was going to go, but I can only understand the verbs when she talks,” he joked.

Erin Calipari smiles at the thought. Her career path is so much different than her dad’s - and because of it, she has become accustomed to explaining her work.



“My whole life is talking to people about science who aren’t scientists,” she says.

As a principal investigator at the Vanderbilt Center for Addiction Research, she has dedicated herself to making groundbreaking discoveries about women’s vulnerability to drug cravings and the immune system’s role in the fight against the opioid crisis.

When she was a girl, it used to bother her that people saw her only as the coach’s daughter.

But now she embraces the fact that she is the child of a man who leads one of the nation’s most successful college sports programs. She sees it as a platform to share important scientific breakthroughs with people who might not otherwise be paying attention.

“The addiction issue right now is one of the biggest epidemics we have seen in my lifetime,” she says.

“And this is one of the ways I can communicate with people who wouldn’t normally have any interaction with academic scientists about a problem that is uniquely affecting them.”

This week thousands of those Kentucky blue basketball fans will descend on Nashville for the SEC Men’s Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.

Calipari has seen it many times before. The sport has shaped her entire life.

She grew up with a basketball in her hands. She even played in college at the University of Massachusetts. “I was terrible,” she quips.

But, when it came to academics, she excelled.

She was the type of student who thought literature had too much interpretation and nuance. “There wasn’t a right answer,” she says, “and that used to drive me crazy.”

Science seemed more precise: This protein interacts with that protein and causes this effect. There was a specific answer.

She went to graduate school at Wake Forest, did her post-doctoral training at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, and came to Vanderbilt to run the Calipari Lab and make medical findings in drug addiction research.

Calipari thrives in that scientific environment, displaying a competitive streak she credits to athletics.

She studies pathways in the brain, piecing together the neural impulses that control motivation and decision-making. She could be described as a code breaker.

Drug addiction, Calipari says, is a decision-making disease. People sometimes choose to take drugs over other things like paying bills, going to work or taking care of their kids.

Her focus is to determine which cells in the brain are responsible for making decisions about drugs and then to figure out how to target those cells to make other choices.

One example: In Calipari’s recent research, she looked at how certain compounds in the immune system could affect cravings for food, sugar and possibly narcotics.

Put more simply, our immune systems also could be part of the battle against opioid addiction.

In Tennessee, there are more opioid prescriptions than there are people who live in the state, spurring an addiction epidemic. More than 3,000 Tennesseans died from overdoses in2016 and 2017 combined.

Health care officials and lawmakers are addressing the crisis. But, Calipari says, it took longer than it should have.

“It was so stigmatized, because it was happening to discrete groups of people,” Calipari says. “And now that it’s everywhere, people are finally starting to say ‘Oh, no. This is a problem.’ It’s relatable now.”

Despite addiction’s widespread occurrence, research remains primarily male focused.

Calipari’s work changes that.

When looking at gender-specific stimulus, her team has found “massive differences” in what males and females value.

Calipari’s latest study found that, when fertility-related hormone levels are high, females learn faster and make stronger associations to cues in their environment.

They also are more prone to seek rewards.

That means women’s hormonal cycles may make them more prone to drug addiction and relapse.

“The hormonal cycle primes your brain to be more responsive to your environment,” she says. “This is evolutionary because, if you are more responsive, you are going to seek out rewarding environments and sexual experiences that propagate the species.

“That same process is hijacked by drugs. … And that makes women more vulnerable.”

In her life away from the lab, Calipari is often exposed to a unique kind of social media ridicule reserved for one of sports’ most loved, or hated, teams.

“You have this magnifying glass,” she says. “People are interested in your family. They are looking at you.”

When a Twitter troll accused her recently of whining about fame, she responded candidly about being particularly vulnerable because of her dad’s notoriety.

“When we were kids, the FBI had to get involved because someone threatened us at school,” she tweeted, referring to herself and her two siblings. “When we were teens someone shot through the front door window of our home,” she continued.

“No one is whining about fame, we are pointing out how we are dehumanized and our safety suffers.”

Calipari has more than 30,000 followers on Twitter, and she uses the platform to tout her science, to banter with her family and, on occasion, to defend her dad.

“To see him get dragged through the mud in the media drives me crazy sometimes,” she says. “Because he’s genuinely the nicest man I have ever interacted with.”

Calipari recently made headlines after a Twitter exchange with ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas about an article detailing an FBI investigation into a college basketball corruption scandal.

John Calipari is not connected to the case and was not mentioned in the story, but his photo was part of the main image for social media shares of the article.

“Imagine wanting him to be involved so bad that you put @UKCoachCalipari as the cover photo for an article he isn’t even mentioned in,” Erin Calipari tweeted.

“Read the article,” Bilas responded. “Or, have someone read it to you. The Oregonian isn’t out to get you.”

Calipari didn’t hesitate to fire back: “I’m still laughing that a sports writer just suggested that I - a PhD in Neuroscience - am illiterate. Weird flex, but ok.”

Just as she supports him, John Calipari also uses social media to showcase his daughter’s work.

“I’m very proud of her because she’s working on important stuff. Addiction and the effects, especially on women, is an epidemic,” he tweeted. Adding on another day: “She’s trying to bring light to a serious problem in our country. She’s on a great path to having an impact to improve lives.”

Calipari faces questions and criticism when her research upends others’ findings.

“When you start changing the status quo - especially as a woman in science - you are up against a system that was not built to include you,” she says. “So you are coming in and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t think this should be this way,’ and people are like, ‘Well, that’s the way it’s always been.’ “

It’s her dad, she says, who gave her the strength to overcome those attacks.

“I don’t feel like I need to be like anyone else, because I’m not,” she says, “and it kind of gives me this freedom to make discoveries that are different and say things that not everyone thinks and speak my mind.

“And if people hate me,” she says with a smile, “I’m like, ‘Well, more people hate my dad, so I’m cool.’ “

Dad and daughter will be in the same town again this week. This time, it will be dad bringing his team to Nashville.

There’s no word yet on whether his older daughter is going to be at the games.

She may be off trying to save women’s lives, talking more about her science. Verbs, nouns, life-changing research and all.

___

Information from: The Tennessean, http://www.tennessean.com

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