Meet Our Research Staff
Director of Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston
Director of Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston
Dr. Parrish, PhD, MSW, is the Director of the Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston, a professor with the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work, and a faculty affiliate with the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT) at the University of Texas at Austin.
Co-Director of Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston
Co-Director of Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston
Dr. Zhao is the Co-Director of the Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston, and an assistant professor at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work.
Dr. Kirk von Sternberg
Kirk von Sternberg, Ph.D., is an associate professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, the associate director of the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT), and adjunct PhD faculty with the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. Von Sternberg has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Houston and a Ph.D. in behavioral science from the University of Texas Health Science Center-School of Public Health. Von Sternberg has 20 years of experience in designing and implementing large clinical trials to test interventions based on the Transtheoretical Model and Motivational Interviewing (MI). As an investigator, he was responsible for study design and data analysis on several large NIH and CDC funded randomized controlled intervention trials addressing risk of alcohol-exposed pregnancies, alcohol and safer sexual practices, STI screening, cocaine abuse, and screening and brief interventions for alcohol and drugs in medical settings to name a few. Von Sternberg has particular interest in the mechanisms of change and recently was the primary data analyst on a study to examine the intervention tapes from the successful Project Choices Efficacy trial. Along with a current intervention trial, CHOICES Plus, to prevent alcohol- and tobacco-exposed pregnancy (CDC), and a trial to test screening and brief intervention for drugs in a level 1 trauma setting (NIDA), Von Sternberg is currently involved in psychometric analyses of process of change assessments to develop briefer measures for use in a computer adaptive testing format (CAT). Dr. von Sternberg is M-PI on the CHOICES-TEEN study.
Dr. Mary Velasquez
Mary Marden Velasquez, Ph.D., is the Centennial Professor in Leadership for Community, Professional and Corporate Excellence and director of the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute at The University of Texas at Austin Steve Hicks School of Social Work. Velasquez holds a master’s degree in clinical psychology and a Ph.D. in behavioral sciences from the University of Texas Health Science Center-School of Public Health.
Her program of research focuses on the development and implementation of interventions using the Transtheoretical Model and Motivational Interviewing. With over 20 years of support from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Velasquez has developed and studied behavioral interventions in the areas of integrated primary care, screening and brief interventions, fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, alcohol and other drug abuse, prenatal health, HIV prevention, and smoking cessation. A recent emphasis has been on teaching graduate students and health professionals to use brief motivational interventions in medical settings. She is the author of books, journal articles and book chapters on using brief interventions to facilitate treatment adherence and promote behavior change for a variety of health problems. Velasquez is an internationally recognized trainer in both Motivational Interviewing and the Transtheoretical Model, and is a founding member of the Steering Committee for the International Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers. Dr. Velasquez is a co-investigator on the CHOICES-TEEN efficacy study.
Dr. Laura Benjamins
Dr. Laura Benjamins, MD, MPH, FAAP, AAHIVS is a Professor at Wayne State University Pediatrics Department and she is board-certified in pediatrics and adolescent medicine. She received her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, MI. She completed pediatric residency training from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston,Texas and tow fellowships in Adolescent Medicine and Joint Primary Care at McGovern Medical School and the University of Texas Center at Houston while obtaining her MPH from the University of Texas School of Public Health. Prior to her current position, she was a professor of Adolescent Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth where, for the last 17 years, she has been working with the Pediatric Infectious Disease team to provide care to adolescents and young adults with HIV. She also has served as the medical director for Harris County Juvenile Probation, providing care at three facilities for Juvenile Justice Involved Youth. Dr. Benjamins was a co-investigator on the CHOICES-TEEN pilot study, and is now co-investigator and subcontract PI on the CHOICE-TEEN Efficacy Study.
Dr. Angela Stotts
Dr. Angela Stotts is a Professor and Vice Chair for Research as well as the Director of the Behavioral Health and Addiction Research Program in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. She holds a cross-appointment in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences as well as an appointment in the Center for Clinical Research and Evidence-Based Medicine.
She has established a long-standing research program specializing in the development and evaluation of behavioral and pharmacological treatments for substance use disorders, with special emphasis on maternal and child populations. She has conducted pioneering work testing interventions to reduce secondhand smoke exposure with families who have an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Dr. Stotts has been continuously funded since 2000 and has served on NIH study sections and special emphasis panels. She is also a Co-Investigator on the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s Clinical Trials Network for the Texas Node. She is an Associate Editor for the Journal of Addiction and a member of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco, College on Problems of Drug Dependence, as well the Society for Teachers of Family Medicine.
At UTHealth, Dr. Stotts has served on multiple committees, as well as the Faculty Senate, and has mentored numerous faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, residents, graduate students, and medical students. She has been the recipient of the UTHealth President’s Award for Mentoring Women (1999) and the Distinguished Professional Woman Award (2015). Dr. Stotts is a co-investigator on the CHOICES-TEEN Efficacy Study.
Dr. Aynsley Scheffert
Aynsley Scheffert, Ph.D., MSW, LICSW is an Assistant Professor of Social Work and the BSW Program Director with Bethel University. She received her MSW from St. Thomas University and Ph.D. in Social Work from Baylor University. Following completion of her MSW degree, she worked in hospital social work at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN and then as an individual, family and group psychotherapist at Zumbro Valley Community Health Center in Rochester, MN. She specializes in child and adolescent trauma, prolonged exposure for PTSD in adults, ADHD, mood disorders, dual diagnosis, and severe and persistent mental illness. During her doctoral program, Dr. Scheffert was awarded the Garland School of Social Work Doctoral Research Fellowship and continued her work as a graduate research assistant through her three years in the PhD program supporting Dr. Parrish and the CHOICES-Teen project. In this role, she served as project coordinator for the pilot study that provided critical feasibility data for the proposal. Her research interests focus on utilizing quantitative, qualitative, and mixed methods methodologies to assess the impacts of disasters and other adverse events and the development of adverse mental health responses, such as depression, PTSD, and maladaptive loss, as well as mechanisms which serve as protective factors and promote the development of resilience. She has a particular interest in implementation research surrounding the integration of educational initiatives for mental health first aid and crisis intervention for organizational leaders, especially in times of disaster and crisis.
Dr. Flor Avellaneda
Dr. Avellaneda’s professional practice and research experience informs her commitment to help address the intersectional barriers faced by Latinx immigrants. She is currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University, working under the leadership of Dr. Danielle Parrish. In this role, she has been instrumental in helping conduct research for CHOICES-TEEN, alongside her colleagues. Her social work practice and background have informed her current research agenda. As a case manager and community educator, she worked with adolescents and their families to foster educational growth and well-being. Her prior practice experience also involved working with Latina domestic violence survivors, where she witnessed firsthand the challenges that Latina migrant women experienced due to partner violence. Some of these challenges included lack of legal documentation, limited access to community resources (e.g., culturally informed mental health provision), and loss of social networks. All factors that are important to address IPV survivors’ needs. Vitally important is research that informs prevention interventions that will promote the health and well-being of women and girls who face sexual health disparities and intimate partner violence. As informed by this particular practice experience, Dr. Avellaneda completed a doctoral internship at the University of Texas Medical Branch Obstetrics and Gynecology Department in Galveston, TX. Under the leadership of Dr. Jeff Temple, she helped examine risk factors associated with dating violence by examining longitudinal data using the Dating it Safe: A longitudinal study on teen dating violence data set, collected as part of a NIJ-funded project. Upon completing her Postdoctoral work, Dr. Avellaneda will pursue a tenure-track faculty position at a Tier One research university, where she will continue to build her research agenda focused on developing culturally informed interventions that improve the quality of life for women and girls.
Cherisha “Cheri” Williams
Project Coordinator/Behavioral Health Specialist
Cheri Williams, LPC, is the Project Coordinator and Behavioral Health Specialist on the NIH-funded CHOICES-TEEN study and a professional affiliate of the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT). Previously, she was the Houston-based Project Coordinator for the NIH-funded Choices4Health R01 study (PI: Mary Velasquez, Ph.D. Director of the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute at the University of Texas at Austin). She earned her master’s in counseling from Louisiana Tech University and is a Licensed Professional Counselor. Ms. Williams is responsible for the implementation, coordination, and administration of the CHOICES-TEEN research project in partnership with Harris County Juvenile Probation, providing extensive training, coaching, and procedural guidance for all staff. Equipped with over 12 years of experience in the field of behavioral and mental health, Ms. Williams also conducts clinical assessments and delivers a motivational interviewing-based intervention to participants involved in the study. Before joining the Baylor IMPACT Lab - Houston and the HBRT family, Ms. Williams used her clinical skills to provide outpatient counseling services and case management to students and their parents in an elementary school setting for a national nonprofit. She has also worked with victims of trauma and abuse and helped rehouse military veterans dealing with homelessness. One of Ms. Williams’ professional goals is to help destigmatize mental illness and treatment services, especially in the African American community.
Leslie Sirrianni, LCSW, is Training Coordinator at the University of Texas at Austin Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT). A member of the international Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), Ms. Sirrianni earned her MSSW degree from UT Austin and is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW). She works with HBRT senior trainers to coordinate and deliver MI training, coaching, coding, and supervision to clinicians, human service providers, and program staff from diverse work settings. She was a member of the clinical team on HBRT's recently completed NIDA-funded Traumatic Injury Prevention R01 study (PI: Dr. Velasquez and Dr. Craig A. Field). Before joining HBRT, she was program manager and clinical therapist delivering interventions in support of the NIMH-funded study, “Telehealth Problem-solving Therapy for Depressed Homebound Older Adults”(PI: Dr. Namkee Choi). She also has provided direct counseling services to homebound older adults through the Counseling Services Department of Family Eldercare, a local nonprofit service organization, and is a long-time CASA volunteer.
Behavioral Health Specialist
Patricia Fiess, LMSW, is a Behavioral Health Specialist for the CHOICES-TEEN Efficacy Study. Patricia also works as a Youth Service Specialist with Harris County at Goose Creek CISD, and prior to this worked for 6 years as an Academic and Behavioral Paraprofessional with Deer Park ISD. Patricia received her MSW from Baylor University’s Diana R. Garland School of Social Work in 2021, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Sciences from the University of Houston- Clear Lake in 2019.
Research Associate and Technology Expert
Kyndal Hammock, BSW, is a research associate at Baylor University on the NIH-funded CHOICES-TEEN R01 study, with a specific focus on intervention technology development (CIAS 3.0 developed by Dr. Ondersma) and data management technology support (e.g., RedCAP, ACASI). Ms. Hammock was previously a research associate at the Health Behavior Research and Training Institute (HBRT), where she was responsible for coding, data management, and team training to support the development and testing of the multiple-behavior C4H intervention adapted for tablet delivery using CIAS software. She also produced the short psycho-educational prevention animations incorporated throughout the tablet intervention. She has also assisted the research team with environmental scans and literature reviews, and provides graphic design and production support for project reports and resources. With a BSW and BA in Psychology from Auburn University (2016), Ms. Hammock has clinical experience working with low-income maternity patients in rural public health clinics in Alabama; she is passionate about health promotion and prevention efforts within underserved and at-risk populations.
Doctoral Research Assistant
Jillian, LCSW, is a PhD Candidate in social work at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work. She received her bachelor’s in education from Texas A&M University in 2016, and her master’s in social work from Baylor University in 2018. Most recently, she worked as an advocate for Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth (CSEY) with Unbound Houston. Jillian is passionate about improving the working conditions of social workers. Her dissertation research focuses on exploring social workers’ experiences of workplace support during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic to provide implications for human service leaders. Her other research pursuits include program evaluation, at-risk youth, adoption and foster care, poverty, and family disruption.
Doctoral Research Assistant
Cali, LCSW, is an athlete, advocate, and clinician in Houston. Cali's research while obtaining her PhD at Baylor University focuses on competitive athletes with debilitating anxiety that negatively impacts their performance. Cali has her own private practice "Athlete Rising, LLC" where she helps athletes obtain appropriate mental health skills to prevent burnout and decrease anxiety in sport. Specifically, Cali specializes in performance anxiety, OCD, perfectionism, specific phobias and social anxiety. As a Division I Athlete at Rice University, Cali won 9 conference championships and was named an honorable mention All-American in the 10k. Cali also competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2020. Cali's own OCD diagnosis led her to a career path of providing evidence-based care. Cali hopes to help others with mental illness know that they are not alone, and that appropriate treatment is available to reobtain the joy that mental illness takes away.
Vanessa Tamez Calvo
MSW Research Assistant
Vanessa has a special connection to the Baylor IMPACT Research Lab – Houston. She feels that her journey in Dr. Parrish’s lab began by no coincidence. The legacy of Dr. Parrish’s work in California impacted Vanessa as an adolescent. She immediately reached out after having stumbled upon an article about Dr. Parrish’s research at Baylor. Since then, Vanessa has been part of the team, and has loved every moment of it.
Vanessa has decided to dedicate her life’s work to fighting systemic racism and oppression in the criminal justice system. She aspires to highlight the various experiences that impact one’s trajectory in life. She is passionate about honorably humanizing people who face life-altering barriers in the courtroom.
When she is not working or studying, you can find her reading, writing, spending time with loved ones, cuddling a cat (any cat she can find), visiting family in California and Mexico, moving her body, and listening to music (banda/Norteño, Indigenous, worship, opera, classical, lo-fi, Christian rap, and R&B).
MSW Research Assistant
Vanessa is an MSW candidate at Baylor University, living in Houston. She got her Bachelor’s in Psychology from the University of Houston, with a minor in political science. She enjoys working with different populations like children, adolescents and young adults. She hopes after graduation to work for an organization that focuses on policy work, advocacy and criminal justice reform. She is thrilled to be part of Dr. Parrish's team and help further knowledge in the field of social work. In her spare time, she loves to spend time with her family, loves to travel, and try new restaurants.
MSW Research Assistant
Jade is an MSW candidate at the Diana R. Garland School of Social Work in Waco, Texas. While she’s not a Waco native, she considers Waco home. She received her Bachelor’s of Business Administration in Human Resources and Entrepreneurship from Baylor University in 2015. While working in operational roles in long-term care facilities after graduation, she became aware of the many ways social workers impact the experiences of individuals and communities. Jade is curious about program design, story-telling with data, and how the physical environments communities convene in or around influence an equitable built-environment. In her free time, Jade enjoys cooking with her spouse, spending time with their two dogs and one cat, tending to her plants and garden, admiring art/design, and collecting vinyl records.