Elizabeth Evans

Elizabeth Evans

As a researcher dedicated to understanding how healthcare systems and public policy can better serve vulnerable populations at risk for opioid and other substance use disorders, Elizabeth Evans finds herself ideally situated in Massachusetts.

According to Evans, a professor in the Department of Health Promotion and Policy in UMass Amherst’s School of Public Health & Health Sciences, the Northeast has been especially hard hit by the opioid epidemic devastating communities across the United States. Massachusetts is also a trailblazer in public health innovation. By studying the implementation and outcomes of innovative public health interventions here, particularly in criminal justice settings, Evans hopes to find evidence-based solutions that can ultimately be adopted elsewhere.

Evans has conducted public health research for over 25 years, but her path to the field was winding. A Los Angeles-area native, as an undergraduate and master’s student, she studied literature and political science. She then worked in public health research for over 15 years before earning her PhD from the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health in 2016. She joined the faculty at UMass Amherst the following year.

Evans’ early interest in literature and storytelling continues to inform her work today, and serves as an important complement to quantitative research methods.

“It’s important to hear the stories of those affected by addiction—the factors they perceive as leading them to begin substance use, and what the experiences of addiction and treatment have felt like over the lifespan,” she explained.

In addition, “many of the students who collaborate with me on research have an interest in the opioid epidemic because they personally have been affected in some way. Their compassion leads them to want to develop better policies to help people with addiction.”

Evans conducts most of her research in Massachusetts and the surrounding region, and has formed strong research partnerships with local justice, healthcare, and community groups. Since joining UMass, she has been awarded over $16.8 million in research funding as principal investigator or sub-contract PI. She has published 93 peer-reviewed articles—on which 40 percent she is first author—including papers in the highest-impact journals in the fields of public health, medicine, and addiction.

It’s important to hear the stories of those affected by addiction.

Elizabeth Evans

Evans received the UMass Distinguished Community Engagement Award for Research in 2019 in recognition of the important role her scholarship plays in addiction research, treatment, and prevention in the local community. In October 2021, she was appointed by Governor Charlie Baker to a five-year term on the Massachusetts Public Health Council, which advises the Commonwealth’s Department of Public Health (DPH) on policy decisions.

Elizabeth Bertone-Johnson, chair and professor of Health Promotion and Policy, praised Evans’ “tireless commitment to understanding and treating opioid addiction in the Commonwealth, and to bettering the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.”

Much of Evans’ research is done in criminal justice settings. She is co-principal investigator, along with Dr. Peter Friedmann, associate dean of research at UMass Chan Medical School-Baystate and chief research officer at Baystate Health, on a project examining a pilot opioid treatment program for jail detainees in nine Massachusetts jails. Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse, the research is part of the NIH’s Justice Community Opioid Innovation Network (JCOIN), an ambitious, $155 million effort involving scientists at dozens of institutions nationwide to improve opioid addiction treatment in criminal justice settings. Working closely with the jail partners and the DPH, Evans and her collaborators have published several papers on the implementation of the program.

In another research project, funded in September 2021 by a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Evans is examining a rare trauma-informed treatment program for people—especially those who have been involved in commercial sexual exploitation—released from the Franklin County jail in Greenfield.

Evans is also collaborating with the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region on a post-overdose intervention program, and with the Holyoke District court on the Holyoke Early Access to Recovery and Treatment (HEART) program, which provides same-day access to medications and other treatments for opioid use disorder for individuals who appear before the court. In other research, supported by The Greenwall Foundation, Evans identifies how to respond in ethical ways to issues raised by the opioid overdose epidemic.

On all her research projects, Evans collaborates with both undergraduate and graduate students, many who go on to pursue master’s degrees or doctorates in public health or medical degrees.

“The students are often the bridge between UMass and the community on a day-to-day basis. They’re an amazing resource and they’re very eager to learn and contribute to their community,” Evans said. “I want to provide students with an opportunity to explore their career trajectory, and to connect with research networks as they pursue the next stage in their educational or work career.”

Reflecting on her own research career to date, Evans is gratified to see the changes that have taken place over the past few decades in approaches to addiction policy and treatment—from the "War on Drugs” campaign of the late 20th century to the kinder, gentler, more evidence-based methods favored today.

“It's exciting to be part of that change and to be able to study how these new policies shape people’s lives,” she said.


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