Dr. Matthew Rossheim: All roads lead back to HSC for one of the world’s leading experts on supersized alcopops
Last fall felt like a return home of sorts for Dr. Matthew Rossheim, who came on board as a tenured Associate Professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems in the HSC School of Public Health (SPH).
Dr. Rossheim is an HSC alumnus who previously taught for the SPH and served as Director of the MPH Community Health Program six years ago. His connections to SPH Dean Dr. Dennis Thombs go back to his undergraduate days at the University of Florida. While completing a bachelor’s degree in economics there and considering his career’s next steps, a friend told him about an interesting research project being led by Professor Thombs, studying late-night drinking and associated risky behaviors among young adult bar and nightclub patrons.
“I found myself interested in books like ‘Freakonomics’ at the time and the different influences that shape people’s behaviors,” Dr. Rossheim said, “and this sounded like a project fitting right along those lines. This ultimately led me to an MPH degree and then a doctorate in public health sciences.”
One finding from that research was that bar patrons who consumed alcohol mixed with energy drinks were 3 times more likely to leave legally intoxicated for driving purposes and 4 times as likely as their counterparts to intend to drive to their next location. These findings helped bring national attention to caffeine-loaded energy drinks that may mask the depressant effects of alcohol, making drinkers feel more alert than they might otherwise. Feeling more alert may explain why consumers tended to drink more and become more impaired than they realized, significantly increasing their risks for harm.
“As a result, federal agencies started citing our research, which led to calls for removing caffeine from these types of products. It was so exciting to be a part of this work,” Dr. Rossheim said.
Dr. Thombs became Dr. Rossheim’s graduate advisor, and when Thombs moved to Fort Worth to become an HSC Public Health department chair, Dr. Rossheim followed. Further field study into the nighttime drinking environment and people’s confidence in their ability to drive safely when intoxicated became his HSC dissertation focus.
An important aspect of the program taught him how to manage and merge different data sets to answer novel research questions in the areas of substance use and injury prevention. Teaching MS PhD classes now is giving Dr. Rossheim an opportunity to mentor HSC public health students in those skills of merging and managing large data sets, quantitative data analyses and scientific writing.
“Even courses like generalized linear modeling are largely about communication. The computer does all the math,” he said. “Statistical models can help scientists communicate the bigger story of how to protect public health to our fellow research audiences, advocates and the general community.”
Dr. Rossheim’s research has taken him far in an early career. From HSC to George Mason University in Virginia, his work has led him to be recognized today as one of world’s leading experts on young adults’ risks related to consuming sugar-sweetened alcohol beverages, commonly called “alcopops.”
“Many supercharged alcopops can contain as much alcohol as an entire 6-pack of beer in a single can. They are classified like beer and are readily available in gas stations, convenience and neighborhood stores. They’re super cheap, super sweetened, high-alcohol content, and the packaging is appealing to young people. Nearly half of the poison control center calls about these products involve underage kids,” he said.
Dr. Rossheim is currently working on an NIH proposal to study the specific brands that young people are consuming.
“It seems an alcoholic Mountain Dew product is on the horizon, and there are others to consider. The more we can learn about what kids are drinking and what can lead to hazardous consumption, the better able public health professionals will be to attack this problem,” he said.
Dr. Rossheim finds himself drawn to substance use prevention research, and now, to helping HSC PhD students ignite their own passions in public health.
“It’s great to be back and to be a part of the research and teaching legacy that HSC continues to build here. While many faces are new, quite a few are also familiar – and it feels like returning home,” he said.