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Dana Rubenstein

Dana is a New Englander-turned-Duke basketball fan who studies tobacco use, pain, and harm reduction. As a medical student and master’s candidate with a background in the humanities, she promotes advocacy and a mix of clinical and research competency.

Trainee Spotlight is a series of interviews from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences that showcases the science and lives of the people behind the lab coats studying the brain at Duke. Want to suggest someone for the series or nominate yourself? Email DIBS's Director of Communications Dan Vahaba. Be sure to also explore a list of our spotlighted trainees' favorite spots around town here.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


What do you love about your job? 

I love the creativity involved in research. I really like it in addition to clinical work because treating patients often requires more algorithms and guidelines to follow. In research, I love coming up with my own questions writing a lot, and learning new methods and techniques. 


What inspired you to go into science and medicine? 

I always knew that I wanted to become a physician, so I got involved in research as an undergraduate at Brown to prepare. Then, I just really fell in love with it. A few different research experiences led me to doing tobacco research, and that put me in the field that I'm in today. 

I wanted to do something at the intersection of behavioral health and health equity. It just so happened that I was offered a position by a mentor who focused on tobacco use in African Americans and was doing interesting work related to e-cigarettes for harm reduction back in the time when e-cigarettes were becoming a lot more popular in the media. It seemed like a very relevant and exciting field to join, and it involved areas that I was hoping to work with in terms of health equity. 


What’s your current research about? 

Dana Rubenstein chairs a symposium.
At a recent national conference, Rubenstein chaired a symposium on cannabis use in priority populations and presented her work on cannabis and tobacco co-use. (Photo courtesy of D. Rubenstein) 

The main umbrella is nicotine and tobacco research. That's where I have most of my background, and there are a few different realms within that. Health equity is an overarching theme. I've worked on various projects focusing on tobacco use, smoking cessation, harm reduction in different types of populations—racial/ethnic minoritized populations, people with serious mental health conditions, disabilities, pain, and older age are some of these populations. 

I'm interested in cannabis and tobacco co-use, too. Using cannabis and tobacco can lead to worse outcomes than either substance alone, and it's becoming more prevalent with cannabis legalization and medicalization across the country. So, I've been incorporating more cannabis research into my work. 


Part of your undergraduate education was in Latin American and Caribbean studies. How did that influence your current research? 

I worked with a lot of Spanish-speaking patients in a local clinic in undergrad, so I enjoyed the opportunity to take classes on not only the Spanish language, but also Latin American culture. My senior year, I ended up getting into Portuguese language and immigration. I had a lot of cool opportunities: I took a sociology class on migration and the Americas, where we went to Mexico City, and I did some research on tuberculosis in Peru. 

I think the focus on branching outside of science and spending a lot of time in the humanities and social sciences is what helped me develop a lot of my writing skills and critical thinking. These studies also informed my focus on health equity. 


How do you hope your research will positively impact people and their health? 

A lot of these understudied populations with multiple comorbid conditions—like people with people pain who use tobacco—smoke at a much higher prevalence than the rest of the population. There needs to be more work focused on these groups so that we can try to decrease tobacco use and the subsequent consequences for them. The work that I do is hopefully laying the groundwork for clinical interventions to address that tobacco use. 

I also work in what we call tobacco regulatory science, basically doing research that informs FDA tobacco product standards. A lot of that is related to harm reduction, whether it's via flavoring or the different product types themselves, like e-cigarettes or heated tobacco products. I see the impact of that all the time. There's a menthol ban that was proposed by the FDA, and there has been a public comment period, which I’ve been able to contribute to with my research team. We've also been able to write op eds in local newspapers. It's a very divisive issue because people in the tobacco industry side—and just generally people who prioritize finances over well-being—are vehemently opposed to this menthol ban, whereas our research shows that it can really benefit people by narrowing disparities. 


Dana Rubenstein poses next to a poster.
Rubenstein poses next to her qualitative poster on interest in medical cannabis cards among people who use cannabis. She chose a memorable participant quote for the title: “People are really killin’ cancer cells by smoking weed”. (Photo courtesy of D. Rubenstein) 


What other projects are you involved in that you’re particularly excited about? 

Right now, my master’s thesis is looking at tobacco/cannabis co-use and pain. I published a paper looking at this cross-sectionally—just looking at one time point, and looking at the association between pain and tobacco and cannabis. That got some media attention earlier in the fall. Building off of that, my thesis is looking longitudinally to try to get a better sense of whether pain leads to tobacco/cannabis use, or whether using tobacco and cannabis leads to pain. There’s a proposed bi-directional feedback loop but not a lot of longitudinal evidence looking in both directions. 

I also started a telehealth service with some other students that are in the Primary Care Leadership Track (PCLT) with the Lincoln Community Health Center. There’s this existing program called Just for Us, which is a home primary care program for low-income older adults and people with disabilities in Durham. With a couple of other medical students and our faculty advisor, Dr. Howard Eisenson, we created a novel home telehealth hybrid program that involves medical education. 

A pair of medical students will go out to the houses of patients in the program with all their exam tools. They can interview the patient, assess home safety, look at medications, and do any physical exams. They’ll have a provider on Zoom the whole time and can be guided. We received some funding for this from the North Carolina Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, and we also have some funding from the Duke School of Medicine.  


What else have you participated in throughout your time at Duke? 

I started a group for health students across Duke, graduate health students—whether they’re med students, PA, PT, OT, or nursing—with disabilities and chronic illnesses. I am pretty involved in disability advocacy. First and foremost, the group is a support network, a home for the students. It also serves as a platform for advocacy, for helping others with navigating Duke itself and accommodations within the health professional curriculums. There is education for the general student bodies about health providers with disabilities and how to best work with patients with disabilities. 


What do you want to do after your time at Duke

I’m planning to do a residency and finish with my medical certification to see patients. I want to work clinically with patients that are at the intersection of substance use disorders and pain or physical disabilities. 


Where do you call home? 

I grew up in the Boston suburbs, and I always spent a lot of time in Rhode Island growing up. I went to college in Rhode Island and really just spent my whole life in the Northeast before coming to Duke. 


What do you love to do in the area? 

I’m a huge Duke basketball fan. It was definitely something I thought about when I was applying. I love being able to go to games and being able to follow such a great home team by watching games, even if I can’t always go in person. 


Dana Rubenstein and a friend pose in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Rubenstein attended the recent victory over Clemson with fellow medical student Nicole Schindler, who is also one of the co-founders of Rubenstein’s hybrid home-telehealth primary care program. (Photo courtesy of D. Rubenstein) 


What's something people you work with might not know about you? 

One fun fact is that I'm a twin. And my dad is also a twin! 


What is an academic pro tip you’ve learned throughout your time in academia? 

One thing productivity-wise is this expression of eating the frog, doing the tasks that you are most dreading or that seems most daunting to you. Do it first thing in the morning, if you can. That's just a silly little one that I heard that I try to do.  


Favorite pizza topping? 

Oh, pineapple. It's the best. It’s sweet and salty. I don't really have much of a defense. I probably should, because people are going to come for me.