Melanie Adler’s work as a writer and editor of training and resource materials is an important facet of EDC’s substance abuse prevention initiatives. “I’m doing my part by making sure we’re communicating in ways that make sense to our audience,” she says.
Adler joined EDC in 1997 to develop a curriculum to help physicians improve their communication skills relating to breast and cervical cancer screening. It was a natural fit for Adler, who had previously worked with medical staff at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute on how to communicate with breast cancer patients and their families about genetic testing.
Now Adler works for the Center for the Application of Prevention Technologies (CAPT), a new national program managed by EDC and supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP). CAPT provides training and technical assistance to CSAP grantees, including states, communities, tribes, and jurisdictions, helping them strengthen their prevention systems to reduce substance abuse and associated problems.
Before your career in public health, you were a professional dancer. How did you move from modern dance to public health work?
I was very interested in science growing up, and in college I majored in biology. The plan was to become a doctor—until I discovered West African dance. There’s nothing like it!
So after graduation, I headed off to a rent-controlled apartment in Cambridge to work as a waitress and become a dancer. Given the market for white Jewish West African dancers, I soon switched to modern dance. I ended up performing with a number of dance companies around Boston. It was physical, fun, and a great way to spend my twenties. I was very happy doing that for 10 years.
This was during the early ’80s when the AIDS crisis was coming to a head. One day, I was walking down Boylston Street to sign up for the AIDS Action Committee’s Walk for Life. I still remember the moment. I walked into the office and was surrounded by a hub of activity. There was a buzz. I was so moved by the commitment of the people and the immediacy of the crisis, I burst into tears.
I knew I had to get involved right away. So I started volunteering on the hotline and eventually for the speaker’s bureau as an AIDS educator. And there I was, back to my science roots—but this time with an education twist. Eventually, I headed to graduate school for public health to learn about changing behavior at a systems level rather than one person at a time.
As a writer and editor of substance abuse prevention materials, what does your work involve?
Before EDC received the grant to oversee the national CAPT program, I worked for the Northeast Regional CAPT developing its distance-learning program. Over the course of about five years, we reached more than 3,000 state- and community-level practitioners, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to attend on-site events. Our courses weren’t on specific prevention programs, but on helping prevention practitioners plan, select, and evaluate the right interventions for their communities.
In my current role, I’m more of a generalist, working closely with the technical assistance specialists out in the field to make sure that their materials are clear, compelling and—most importantly—relevant! The work of CAPT is to translate the research on effective prevention strategies into concrete steps that people can use to implement local solutions. My goal is to break down concepts that can be big and amorphous, and present the information in a way that makes sense to people in the field. And it’s surprisingly satisfying.
How are the approaches to substance abuse prevention in the United States changing?
In the old days, states and communities were expected to choose prevention programs from a list of models deemed effective by various funders—and to implement these programs with absolute fidelity. The problem was that what worked in one state or community or age group didn’t always work in another. So now we’re encouraging practitioners to take a close look at the needs of their own communities and develop and/or adapt a program if a model doesn’t exist. This is actually a major shift in thinking.