Would it be a shock to know that one of the most reputed research centers in the country is located right here at UNM? Would you be even more surprised if you found out that the same center has been making groundbreaking discoveries for 35 years, but you’ve probably never walked by it?      

Situated just five minutes from the Albuquerque Sunport, this year the Center on Alcohol, Substance use and Addictions (CASAA) is celebrating 35 years since it was established in 1989. While its history is one to marvel at, it’s just one part of this dedicated research conglomerate.    

History of CASAA   

While the location of the center is a story within itself, the center first staked a location in the mind of then UNM School of Medicine Dean Leonard Napolitano. He envisioned a space where research and clinical practice could work together and learn from each other; enter Distinguished Professor Emeritus and CASAA co-founder Bill (William) Miller, who had joined the UNM Psychology Department faculty in 1976.    

Dr. Bill Miller, 1977

“I came here knowing nothing about New Mexico and never left–there’s no place I would rather have been really, than here. Dean Napolitano just had a vision of a group of scientists from different fields working together to try to solve important issues for New Mexicans, for Americans, for people around the world,” Miller said. 

Miller is a renowned expert in his field of treating substance use disorders and is the creator of the groundbreaking clinical approach, motivational interviewing. He is one of many icons at CASAA that have developed acclaimed elements of research, which continues to this day.     

“Motivational interviewing didn't start from a theory. It started from closely observing practice and pragmatically asking, what is it that we do that actually makes a difference? What can we learn from research to find better ways to help people change and grow? That desire to do it better, I think, is what was behind the prevention and treatment work that has been done here at CASAA for so many years, 35 years now,” Miller said.      

Before Miller changed the addiction treatment landscape by championing empathic treatment, he interned at veterans’ hospitals in Wisconsin and California. 

“I hadn't planned to go into the addiction field, but in Milwaukee there was this alcohol treatment unit and the director was a psychologist,” Miller said. “I didn't realize how unusual that was at the time. The director asked me, ‘what do you know about disorders related to alcohol?’ I said ‘nothing, really.’ He said ‘well, you probably ought to learn about this, because it will be the second most common diagnosis you'll see during your career.”     

Before dozens of current scientists and practitioners could proudly say they were a part of CASAA in 2024, the name CASAA had to come about. 

“The name CASAA was crafted by a committee. Center was the easy part. It encompassed alcohol, drug issues and addictions more generally to make CASAA, which is an appropriate name in New Mexico, so it worked well,” Miller said.     

Dr. Phil May, who was a leader in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders research throughout his career, was the first director of CASAA, and shared the helm with other captains and leadership models over the years. As Miller retired in 2006, another well-known CASAA member entered the picture; Distinguished Professor Emerita Barbara McCrady became the Director in 2007.    

“I was at Brown and then I moved to Rutgers University, and CASAA was developed during that time. I was very aware of it and knew a lot of people that were working here,” McCrady said. “Bill Miller, whom I'd known since 1977, had said, ‘we're going to be looking for a new director of CASAA, would you be interested?’ I thought, “maybe.” My husband and I were tired of New Jersey and we thought it would be really interesting to move 2,000 miles to the Southwest and be in a fantastic environment where I could do the work that I love and help build CASAA for the future.”   

“We have tremendous early career faculty here who are doing incredible science and are really enthusiastic and want to be here, want to do this research here and be the next generation of addiction scientists.” –CASAA Director Katie Witkiewitz  

McCrady has a strong foothold in psychology and alcohol use disorder treatment as well. She knew, like Miller, the important service this field could provide to people struggling, and the role other factors like mental health, biology and neuroscience played in these issues.     

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Dr. Barbara McCrady in the 70's

“I got into psychology because my interest was in changing communities. I thought psychology was a way to be able to really make people's lives better. When people recover, it's like getting a new life, and that's incredible. There aren't a lot of areas in psychology or mental health where you can participate in somebody really getting their life back,” McCrady said. “When I first got into the field, alcohol problems were really marginalized and very few psychologists really cared about these issues. That's what I cared about–people that were at the margins.”  

McCrady recognized as director that there was a need to expand and diversify areas of research within CASAA to propel it into the future. That included improving relations with those in Native American communities, expanding CASAA research in the criminal legal system, and enhancing collaborative relationships with other parts of UNM.   

“My vision was a place where people could do really good work in the addictions field, and for CASAA to be a center that was important to the state and to the nation, and that our work would have international impact as well. I also wanted us to be forward-looking and expand our collaborations. At UNM we were really in a unique position by having very strong groups in both behavioral science (CASAA) and neuroscience (the Mind Research Network) so I wanted to expand our scope,” McCrady said.       

McCrady’s vision worked, with CASAA leading the way in a number of areas in alcohol and drug research– to this day. These included fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, DWI prevention, mutual help groups, the Community Reinforcement Approach, family-involved treatments, cognitive-behavioral treatment, mindfulness approaches, mechanisms of change, behavioral neuroscience, and economic factors. Dr. J. Scott Tonigan, who served as CASAA Director from 2018 through 2022, spent his entire career at CASAA and is internationally renowned for his work on what works in mutual help groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and how to best measure addiction-related outcomes and treatment effectiveness. 

“What's unique about CASAA is different scientists bringing what they've learned and knowing that none of us has the whole puzzle. Finding how those puzzle pieces fit together, it's just fascinating stuff and it's making a difference in the world. There’s nothing I would rather have done.”  – Distinguished Professor Emeritus and CASAA co-founder Bill (William) Miller  

“Many people may not know this, but many leading behavioral treatments for alcohol use disorder were developed by investigators at CASAA. I think that's amazing. In the past CASAA had a training arm to teach these evidence-based treatments] and I would love to see us have that again to really be the resource, particularly for the state. A lot of us do training nationally, but not as much in New Mexico,” McCrady said. 

Just as paramount as the research itself was CASAA’s mission to train the next generation in conducting it.     

“When Bill Miller was here, he had a training grant for pre-doctoral students in psychology. It was clear to me that CASAA was kind of top heavy with a few early career investigators and that we needed to figure out how to build a more hierarchical center,” McCrady said. She obtained funding for a pre- and post-doctoral research training grant, with one goal to nurture future CASAA researchers. “That was one of the real highlights - training students and having postdocs and then having the postdocs continue on to early career awards and stay here and build CASAA.”  

For many years, former CASAA Director Tonigan also provided grant mentoring and training to scientists across UNM. The directors of CASAA may seem like a list of names upon reading; it’s important to know, though, when you look at the range of energetic, fresh faces at CASAA today, it’s because of each person’s carefully laid groundwork. 

“They had had interim leadership for about four years, and there was really, really good work going on here, but there wasn't the sense of centeredness that's important. I did a bunch of things to try to change things,” McCrady said. “The old timers were a little skeptical, so I spent a lot of time with them because they were doing fantastic work and I wanted CASAA to be successful. I wanted to get to know people, and I wanted people to have a sense of community.”   

Despite paving the way in the field of substance use in every sense of the word and receiving grants well above its competitors, CASAA remained ostracized when it came to UNM and the Albuquerque community.   

“We'd like CASAA to collaborate more with the rest of campus. We're offsite and we do collaborate right now, but I'd like for it to be 100% that we collaborate with all of the departments at UNM. It would be nice if we could even expand all of that.” - CASAA Strategic Project Director Roberta Chavez   

“Where's the UNM hospital? It's way down the road on campus. CASAA is in a warehouse district out here by the airport. Why is that? It was: ‘We don't want those people around the hospital.’  Of course, they were already there being treated for medical and mental health issues, but that stigma was there and so we ended up far from the campus,” Miller said.   

Miller said it even took a while for the campus bus to make its way to the center.     

Roberta chavez places headpiece on participant
Roberta Chavez assists in research

“That stigma has been a real issue. We haven't treated addictions like they're part of the healthcare system nationwide. I think that our location here still reflects that. I hope in the future that can be closer geographic integration as was originally envisioned,” Miller said.       

The researchers in CASAA never let distance stop their work and attitude. Roberta Chavez, Strategic Project Director, was hired in 1991, and remains the model for ‘if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life.’       

“I really enjoy it so much. A lot of people say on Sundays they dread coming in on a Monday and I'm ready. By 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, I'm ready to come in the next day to meet anything. I've been very, very fortunate that Dr. Miller hired me and that I've been able to stay on as long as I have, especially because we work on “soft” grant funded salaries,” Chavez said.   

She has been a part of over 55 different grant funded studies over the last three decades. Her contributions include the vital parts of studies that don’t always get the spotlight, like participant recruitment, protocol development, data collection, and research assessment.     

“I started out as a research coordinator, recruiting, tracking, completing baselines, completing follow-ups. We really help the community,” Chavez said. We help the people that get released from jail or prison, people that are in treatment. I feel that all of it is important because I’m always having to go out and look for more studies for us. Every single month, day, and year, if we have a study, that’s what I’m grateful for.”   

Chavez embodies another important element of CASAA research; seeing those involved beyond problems and solutions and numbers.   

“I think we are providing a service that is (maybe) met in other states that have more facilities/providers/resources and I’m happy to do that. If we can help people who would otherwise receive no assistance and contribute to the field of addiction science, then I’m all for it.” – Assistant Professor and CASAA Co-Investigator Margo Hurlocker 

“You get to really work with people and talk with people who are suffering from these things. They aren’t just stats, they’re people. Everyone is going through something, so when I recruit, I don’t judge anyone. I understand what they’re going through. It’s always very helpful and insightful to hear what that person is going through, so it really helps us, and it helps the person that we consider them not just a number,” she said.   

That’s the same passion you’ll find in the different people within CASAA today. Every investigator, staff member, administrator or pre- or post-doctoral trainee is enthusiastic about making a difference in the lives of others.   

“I'm just so thankful that CASAA has been able to be so solid and steady and that we've all been able to work here. It's a wonderful group. People come in and do their work and know what they need to do. That's what I think is the most positive thing that I've gone through, is that with every single project that we’ve worked on, it’s always special and we accomplish everything,” Chavez said.    

When you look at the old chapters of CASAA, the stigma, funding problems and signs of the times may be disheartening; it’s all the more reason to be inspired by the present day team still fighting inequities and building novel treatments. 


CASAA Today and the Next 35 Years   

Current CASAA Director Katie Witkiewitz came to UNM in 2011 because CASAA was nationally and internationally known as the place to be for addictions research and treatment. 

katie sits at table in roundhouse
Katie Witkiewitz presents at state capitol

“I jumped at the opportunity to join the faculty here,” Witkiewitz said. “It was such an amazing opportunity to be at a place where everyone was committed to the vision of reducing suffering related to addiction and having colleagues and students and trainees and staff who are all dedicated to helping people live better lives. It's such a special place for that reason.”     

She took over the director reins in 2022 from Tonigan, who led CASAA through the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and research shutdowns that had a profound impact on many projects. Dr. Tonigan’s efforts in keeping CASAA and research participants safe, as well as increasing grant submissions during his term, buoyed CASAA into a period of rapid growth. Dr. Witkiewitz has continued to focus on expanding CASAA. An important part of that effort has been CASAA’s successes as a UNM Grand Challenges team.   

“How do we best treat these disorders when they develop? How do we prevent a disorder from happening in the first place? A big piece of our work is focused on community engagement and being within the community to help communities,” Witkiewitz said. “We also really focus on getting our treatments that we develop out into the real world through implementation science–using the scientific method to also make sure that the treatments we develop are in the real world and helping people as soon as we develop them.”     

CASAA is funded in large part by research grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with an estimated $8 to $10 million that goes to support CASAA staff, faculty, trainees and research equipment and participants annually. That may seem like a large total, but Witkiewitz is pushing for additional state and federal funds.    

“My favorite thing about working here is absolutely the people. We have a great community of individuals who work really well together, who care about one another, who are all committed to the shared vision and mission of reducing suffering, reducing harm and improving lives. To be in a group of people with that mission, the empathy surrounds you. There is a lot of support and hope and real commitment to helping others in the community, but helping each other as well.” - CASAA Director Katie Witkiewitz   

“A research grant actually has a huge economic impact on the Albuquerque community. Anytime we get a new grant, we get to employ more people,” she said. “It’s a never-ending cycle of reciprocity. The money goes to CASAA, but eventually circles back to the community through the health and well-being impacts CASAA makes in the community.”    

Some of that NIH support has gone to create centers within CASAA, like the UNM IMPOWR Center, which is a $10 million center grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse that focuses on the long term crisis of opioid addiction.     

“CASAA faculty really came together with interest in addressing the crisis of opioid addiction. They brought their work together to see if they could synergize to help solve these problems using an interdisciplinary focus, with many different perspectives in many different disciplines working together on a common problem and with common vision,” Witkiewitz said.     

New Mexico is especially ripe for assistance from CASAA. With high rates of drinking, drug use and gambling addiction, CASAA is uniquely situated to help those who need it.   

“It fuels everything that I do to be in New Mexico. We are the state with the highest rate of alcohol mortality by far– seven times the national average. We also have terrible problems with other addictions, including opioids and methamphetamine and fentanyl, so we have real problems in the state,” Witkiewitz said. “A lot of it has to do with not just the people here, but the environment, policies, historic incidence of poverty, education and health outcomes. We're in this place that has real problems related to addiction, yet this place is also so committed to one another.”     

That’s why you find so many longtime team members like Chavez. When you see the impact of your work on the place you call home, something special happens.  

“As long as we have the research studies and we have the funding, I will really enjoy my work. Every day is a joy to come in and do research,” Chavez said. “I learned everything from the bottom up, so it's very, very exciting when I train students, graduate students and volunteers, so I can relate to them and have an open-door policy.”   

That was one of the founding ideas of CASAA, after all constant mentorship and learning.     

“CASAA provides for so many opportunities for students to find their own passion in this work and find what piece of the work we do here is most meaningful to them. Then that drives them forward to keep doing this work, so I think there's just so much synergy and wonderful community interaction here. It really provides all of us with the motivation, the drive, and the passion to keep doing this work,” Witkiewitz said.   

The newest CASAA team members are carrying on the traditions and finding their own passion in the work. Dr. Margo Hurlocker, who joined CASAA in 2017 as a postdoctoral fellow and has continued at UNM as an Assistant Professor in Psychology reflects that, as well as how New Mexico roped her in. 

“I see CASAA as a leading force in holistic wellbeing and recovery broadly. A lot of the work we do is focused on interventions and ideas related to harm reduction, mindfulness, and the improvement of quality of life. I see CASAA continuing to lead the charge of reducing health disparities - and importantly, highlighting cultural strengths and resiliency.” – CASAA Postdoctoral Fellow Nina Christie   

“I love the work that I have been doing with community-based treatment programs,” she said. “I have learned just as much about the ways to implement innovations into practice through conversations with people at these agencies as I have from my training in implementation science. I also love the shared mission of our group to expand our focus from ‘what works for people’ to ‘how to get it to people. We are contributing to and, in some cases, spearheading the direction of the field of addiction science.”     

One of the newest faculty members at CASAA, Dr. Cassandra Boness was hired in 2021 and she also was drawn to UNM because of CASAA.  

“I love CASAA’s focus on diverse community needs and improving substance related outcomes for all people. It is apparent in our day to day work that CASAA students, staff, and faculty are actively striving to improve the wellbeing of our communities in New Mexico and beyond,” Boness said.    

This spirit of community is echoed by other long-time CASAA faculty, such as Dr. Kamilla Venner who came to CASAA as a trainee working with Miller in 2002.  

“CASAA is unique in its community of highly successful addiction researchers who value and collaborate with diverse communities to improve health and holistic wellbeing,” she said.    

The importance of community is also acknowledged by incoming trainees. A postdoctoral fellow at CASAA, Dr. Nina Christie, said her favorite thing about the work she does at CASAA is the shared vision for impactful research. 

“I am so thrilled to be working with a team of people whose goals and values align with my own: to do work that reduces the suffering associated with substance use. It goes beyond our immediate work together,” she said. “The work at CASAA is changing the social landscape of how people think about and talk about substance use more broadly. The work around harm reduction has shifted the conversation from ideas like complete abstinence only, or rock bottom to more effective public health perspectives including risk reduction, health promotion, and holistic wellness.”   

When Miller returned to 2650 Yale Blvd SE in 2024, he got to see shelves of books and papers and archives from his years of dedicated exploration. He also got to take stock of the changes and new faces representing the strong outlook of the center.    

“It's the people. The people who work in these offices have changed over time, but I think that overall desire to make a difference for people that are struggling with alcohol, drug problems and other kinds of addictions, has been the heart of this all along,” Miller said. “That's what was magic in this building and still is. As you get older, you begin helping the next generation come along. It's what you do as parents, it's what you do as teachers; rather than saying it's about me, it's about us, so you help the next generation find their topics, their passion, their ideas, their wisdom.”     

35 is a milestone without a doubt, but Witkiewitz is confident the next five, ten, fifteen years and more will come without problem as well.    

“I think it's incredible for any research program to be going on beyond any one person's career. Bill Miller, Barbara McCrady, and Scott Tonigan have had tremendous careers in addiction science,” Witkiewitz said. “For this center to now continue and to be growing beyond those contributions from leaders of our field and to be a part of that growth and the next generation of addiction science is really, really exciting. We're at 35, but I feel like 50 is just around the corner and there is still a ton of work to do for our community and the state of New Mexico.”