Honors students are known for their ability to constantly find ways to elevate their educational experience, which is exactly what is taking place in the new sex trafficking research study here on Auburn’s campus.
The RESTORE Program is a community based participatory program which focuses on a one-size-does-not-fit-all type of study. RESTORE works together with non-profit organizations, law enforcement, healthcare providers, and, most importantly, the survivors of sex trafficking, in order to gain an understanding of each survivor’s unique experience and how needs may vary from one survivor to another.
Through this research, RESTORE hopes to provide information about better healthcare practices and recovery support.
According to Dr. Lauren Ruhlmann, assistant professor at Auburn University and creator of the program, this type of research is especially important because it is the most practical. Through the work of the RESTORE program, therapists will begin to fully grasp the physical, psychological, and relational health of the survivors of sex trafficking, thus leading to more advanced clinical intercessions.
Dr. Ruhlmann currently has four Auburn Honors College students working as undergraduate research assistants with her, all from a wide variety of majors.
These Honors students range from freshmen to juniors and study neuroscience, microbiology, pre-med, and computer science. She finds it especially beneficial for the freshmen to learn and engage with the older students, including graduate students working with Ruhlmann, in order to fully benefit from researching with the RESTORE program.
The undergraduate research assistants tend to work for seven hours each week if they are volunteering with the RESTORE program, but if the research is for class credit they are in the lab for the duration of their class period. Along with the different projects the students are working on, their responsibilities include coding and entering data, cleaning data in computer software, writing manuscripts, and much more.
Rachel Howell, one of the Honors College students working as an undergraduate research assistant with Dr. Ruhlmann, states that social justice and advocacy have always been large parts of her life and the RESTORE program lets her combine the two, which elevates her love for research.
The students themselves are working on both quantitative and qualitative projects for the RESTORE program.
The quantitative project involves working on a one-size-does-not-fit-all survey, which is an online national resource. This quantitative survey is teaching the students how to translate science to everyday practice and how to communicate that research to the general public.
The qualitative work being done has to do with reading and analyzing the transcripts of interviews with survivors of sex trafficking. These interviews give researchers an insight into issues with healthcare, obstacles in survivors’ relationships, and the social stigma surrounding survivors of sex trafficking. Through this qualitative work, students learn how to incorporate social consciousness into their professions. Instead of seeing a list of symptoms, they will see the patient as a whole.
While Howell’s tasks may change from week to week, she regularly completes nine hours of research each week in the RESTORE lab with a focus on examining and interpreting the current literature in order to contribute to the on-going projects. She is currently working on the qualitative segment of the project, researching the barriers survivors face, with her main responsibility being the literature review. According to Howell, this literature review specifically involves “reading the current research and interpreting it in order to contextualize your own research.” Once completed, the review will then be presented at a regional conference.
Although Howell finds herself with her own specific tasks, she views the work she does in the RESTORE lab as part of a team. She works directly under Dr. Ruhlmann’s graduate assistants, who not only work on their own research, but assign tasks for individuals on their teams. Howell states that each undergraduate research assistant is assigned projects based on their amount of experience and number of hours at the lab. While these undergraduate research assistants may not be assigned the same project all at one time, they still pride themselves on working together as a team.
When it comes to the future of the program, Howell is interested in combining her time spent in the RESTORE lab with parts of her Honors Thesis project. She specifically wants to include research on “the prevalence rates of body dysmorphia and eating disorders” in survivors of sex trafficking. Through the inclusion of this research, she hopes to be able to determine whether or not it is a significant factor in terms of recovery.
The Honors College itself has proved to be especially beneficial for Rachel Howell. From the start, she found that the Honors College could open her mind to much of the world’s issues. She began her freshman year as a participant in the Honors College k(no)w poverty? Week of Service, which gave her an opportunity to meet friends, but to also “strengthen [her] interest in social advocacy.” In addition to service/learning experience, Howell was introduced to the RESTORE program through the Honors College which then eventually led to her enrolling in an Honors Research Seminar in the Spring 2019 semester. The support the Honors College has given her, and continues to give her, has allowed her to travel and present the research done in the RESTORE lab.
Dr. Lauren Ruhlmann is only in her first year as an assistant professor at Auburn University and she has already managed to bring significant change to campus. Ruhlmann earned her PhD at Kansas State and it was there that she developed the idea to create a research program centered around survivors of sex trafficking.
Before she came to Auburn, Ruhlmann was the director of trauma services for survivors of sex trafficking in a residential recovery program. Through this residential recovery program and her history as a marriage and family therapist, she was able to provide trauma therapy to the survivors in the program. Additionally, Ruhlmann worked as both a clinician and a researcher as she met with these survivors.
Many times Dr. Ruhlmann encountered an issue in the trauma room that could not be addressed or met a survivor with such a level of trauma that she started to wonder if there was anything else that could be done. After finding that there was not much information on the severe levels of trauma she was witnessing, Ruhlmann took it upon herself to help start a one-size-does-not-fit-all national study that is one of the largest and most comprehensive studies of its kind.
If you are interested in joining the RESTORE program, you can email Dr. Lauren Ruhlmann (firstname.lastname@example.org) or reach out to any of the students currently involved. Applications will re-open in the fall for all those looking to join.