Passion. That one simple word can explain so much about the career of Howard Shaffer, Ph.D., a world-renowned leader in the field of addictions psychology and pathological gambling. His work as a researcher, clinician, professor, author, consultant and, perhaps most importantly, mentor, has led Shaffer down a successful, sometimes all-consuming, path.
"I still wake up seven days a week and look forward to the day," Shaffer says. "I've been in love with science since about the sixth or seventh grade. I liked what it brought to the table then, and I like it just as much today - how lucky am I?"
Like many students, Shaffer stumbled upon his passion for psychology. He began his studies as a sociology major before realizing his interest in the science of social systems, the interplay of those systems and individuals, and, ultimately, the science of individual psychology. As a psychology major, his enthusiasm for the field and interest in personality and impulses became clear. Shaffer worked and studied year-round, taking graduate courses as an undergrad and working as a research assistant to senior faculty throughout his junior and senior years. "It wasn't work," Shaffer is quick to note." I just kept doing what I loved." He loved it so much, in fact, that he co-authored his first scientific paper before earning his bachelor's degree.
During graduate school, Shaffer realized little work had been done to study impulse disorders, deviant behavior patterns and mental illness. He settled his studies there for a time, but eventually learned this particular population Ñ those afflicted by mental illness, impulsivity, and violence Ð was, for a variety of reasons, not accessible enough to properly investigate. These interests, however, led him to the field of addictions. It was while working as a clinician at the East Boston Methadone Clinic and Project Turnabout that Shaffer believes his career really took off.
"It was there that I realized drugs weren't central to addiction," he says. "People were going through withdrawal without having a recent history of using dependence producing drugs." That discovery made for a natural transition to the study of pathological gambling, which had just begun to emerge as a field. Shaffer soon met Dr. Robert Custer, forefather of the discipline, and the rest, as they say, is history.
To list Shaffer's contributions to the field would require volumes. While he currently focuses his efforts on research and education activities associated with the Institute for Research on Pathological Gambling and Related Disorders as director of the Division on Addictions at Cambridge Health Alliance, he also remains an associate professor of psychology in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, maintains an active private practice and is the current editor of The Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
Shaffer's gambling research has yielded the first reliable national prevalence estimates of disordered gambling behavior, the first longitudinal study of casino employees, the first national study of college gambling and a new model for understanding addiction as a syndrome. He has written extensively about the treatment of addictive behaviors and the nature of addiction, including more than 200 chapters, journal articles and reviews. He also has published more than 120 newspaper articles and 10 books or monographs.
Shaffer often is praised for his ability to translate real science into meaningful information for non-scientists.
"Unlike many academics, Howard has the ability to discuss complex methodology and the minutiae of high-level research while still captivating an audience of casino executives and other lay people. That's no mean feat," says Dean Hestermann, corporate director of public affairs at Harrah's Entertainment, Inc.
Shaffer responds to that praise with a laugh. "I don't think I'm really very smart," he offers, but further explanation reveals an approach to information that influences the way he presents it to others. "I go out of my way to simplify things," he says. "To understand information, I break it down into small, digestible pieces. I don't trust my own understanding of everything, so I do that as much for myself as for my audience."
He also firmly believes everyone is able to understand science: "We're all lay scientists in a way; we can all relate to the sheer joy of solving and understanding problems." Shaffer continues to find new ways to make the science of addiction more relatable. Most recently, he combined his academic pursuits with his other great passion - photography. His new exhibit, "Expressions of Addiction," is available for viewing at www.expressionsofaddiction.com. The project combines photographic portraits depicting people in various stages and expressions of addiction with bio-sketches of the individuals. Shaffer hopes the project will increase awareness and help the public better understand addiction, as well as contribute to the call for community prevention and treatment resources.
Shaffer humbly scoffs at the idea of being a pioneer in the field. While admittedly flattered, the designation makes him noticeably uncomfortable. "I just don't think of myself in that way," he says. "I owe so much of what I've done to those who came before me - all that I'm doing is an extension of what they taught me and people taught them. You can't take one link out of the chain and call it special."
That may be true, but those who have worked with Shaffer see things a bit differently. "Howard has a respect for science that you just can't teach," said Debi LaPlante, Ph.D, an instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and fellow member of the Division on Addiction's team. "I feel lucky every day I come to work- I know that I'm in the middle of something different, something special. He has created a special place where new and experienced researchers can come together and examine some of the toughest research questions. It's no surprise to any of us when he often is the one to come up with the most elegant answers to the most complex questions. His enthusiasm for inquiry and thoughtfulness makes him such a wonderful mentor."
Shaffer echoes this admiration. "I am blessed to work with the very best young minds available," he says. "It's their passion and joy that keep me going and inspire me." No matter the inspiration, Shaffer's work continues to excite the field, provoke thought and ignite questions. "The more we understand, the more questions we have," he says. Thankfully for the field, Shaffer's passion appears to know no end.