Becoming an Expert: Natasha Clarke on alcohol harm-reduction strategies for students

Natasha Clarke completed her undergraduate degree in Psychology and her Masters in Research Methods in Psychology at the University of Liverpool. 

She is in the second year of an ESRC CASE studentship, in collaboration with Alcohol Research UK, under the supervision of Dr Abi Rose in the Department of Psychological Sciences.

“The harmful use of alcohol is a global problem and students represent a high-risk population as around 50% of students drink more than the lower risk guidelines (I’m sure many past or present undergraduates can relate to this!).

My PhD research aims to assess the effectiveness of harm-reduction strategies for alcohol use, particularly in student populations.

Harm-reduction strategies aim to reduce the number of people drinking above the recommended guidelines (of 3 to 4 units per day for men and 2-3 units per day for women), reduce binge drinking and reduce alcohol-related deaths.

Harm-reduction strategies

Some interventions focus on providing information to individuals to encourage them to reduce their drinking, and current alcohol policy involves informing the public on guidelines for safe consumption.

Part of my research looks at the effectiveness of the provision of information, in different forms. For example I have investigated brief personalised interventions, which give information and advice to a hazardous drinker that is tailored to their drinking habits.

I am also looking at how effective information can be in reducing consumption when provided as a label on the side of a glass (e.g. unit guidelines and warnings), or whether individuals pay attention to alcohol warning posters in a bar-like environment.

Small changes

I will be comparing these more obvious methods of encouraging drinkers to cut down with environmental ‘nudges’.

Nudges are small changes in our immediate environment that may produce unconscious behaviour changes, encouraging us toward healthier options. A lot of nudging research has already been carried out with eating behaviour and an example of a nudge could be putting fruit and healthy snacks at the front of a supermarket till instead of chocolate.

With drinking it could be something as subtle as changing the shape of the glass we are drinking from to encourage us to drink more slowly. It could be that these types of interventions may be more effective in a student population, especially if individuals are not actively trying to reduce their drinking.

Research Methods

I use a variety of research methods to collect my data. Most of my work is quantitative, and involves participants completing experimental lab-based studies. We are lucky enough in Liverpool to have our very own bar-lab, which is extremely useful for collecting data in an environment that is similar to a real life drinking establishment.

I have also conducted qualitative research, for example by conducting focus groups with groups of students, meaning I can gain in-depth data on individuals’ views.

Disseminating Research

Attending and presenting at conferences is a brilliant way to get people interested in your research and to find out about theirs. I try to attend as many as I can and recently won first prize for a poster on my research into brief personalised interventions at a Public Health PhD symposium at Liverpool John Moores University.

I really enjoy blogging and tweeting (follow me- @tash_c135) and think it is vital as a researcher to use such platforms to disseminate research. Whenever I find the time, I write both opinion and research pieces for my own blog ‘Diary of an Alcohol Researcher’, our Addiction Group’s blog and also the Mental Elf, an award winning website which alerts clinicians and the general population to current health-related research.”

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