MSCJPS grad student Katie Heinz is first to defend thesis research

Katie Heinz

Service to others has always been important to Katie Heinz.

From working as an EMT while studying sociology at Princeton University, to interning for the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office in the Special Victims and Major Felonies units during her time as a graduate student at SPEA, making a difference has been a way of life for the Bargersville, Indiana, native.

Katie HeinzFor her work with the prosecutor’s office and at the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic, where she helps people in the Indianapolis area without legal representation expunge their criminal records, Heinz was awarded the William M. Plater Civic Engagement Medallion. She was one of six SPEA students to earn the recognition this semester.

“I did a lot service work at Princeton,” Heinz said, “and coming to SPEA I knew it would be a good fit in terms of getting me set on a career path where I could focus on service and helping others.”

And it’s her work in her Master of Science in Criminal Justice and Public Safety program that may ultimately have the broadest impact in the community.

In March, Heinz became the first SPEA graduate student to defend a thesis as a part of the newly developed thesis option within the degree. During the past year and a half, Heinz dove deep into three different Marion County databases in an attempt to identify intervention points for fatal drug overdoses.

Since the beginning of the MSCJPS program in 2010, the capstone project has served as the culmination of the graduate school experience. The semester-long group project pairs students with local agencies and offers students hands-on experience at tackling real-life projects.

However, for faculty who teach within SPEA’s criminal justice program, providing opportunities for research-oriented students to engage in original research and develop skills related to the research process was an important next step in the ongoing development of the program.

The newly-implemented thesis option provides important benefits for students, faculty, and the school, said Assistant Professor Brad Ray.

“Not only does it develop a mechanism for more hands-on mentorship in the research process, it creates a formal avenue for faculty to be engaged with research-oriented grad students,” said Ray, who holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from North Carolina State University and served as Heinz’s thesis adviser. “It also creates a different venue for students to engage with community agencies and organizations, and makes placement into doctoral programs more likely.”

For Heinz, the opportunity to be in the driver’s seat of a project and get a lot more experience with data collection and analysis was the impetus behind her decision to be one of the first students to pursue the thesis option route.

Heinz analyzed the toxicology reports of nearly 1,200 overdose victims in Marion County and compared that data with records from the Marion County Jail and Indianapolis Emergency Medical Services (EMS). She sought to answer three specific research questions:

  • What is the average rate of EMS contact and incarceration prior to fatal drug overdoses?
  • What is the average time period between EMS contact, incarceration and subsequent fatal drug overdoses?
  • Do these average rate and time periods vary by sociodemographic characteristics or types of drugs?

“I had been looking through coroner’s reports as part of my work with Dr. Ray as a research assistant,” Heinz said. “We had been talking for a while about how the contact with EMS and jail may be affected or related to fatal overdoses. It seemed like a great opportunity to identify intervention points for treatment for those who are overdosing, and to retrospectively look at how those who go on to die interacted with these two points specifically.”

Katie HeinzThrough the research process, Heinz discovered that individuals in Marion County who died of a heroin overdose were significantly more likely to have been in jail in the prior year compared to individuals who overdosed on some other illicit substance or prescription drug. Heroin overdose victims were also significantly more likely to be young, male, and never married.

Individuals who overdosed on non-opioids (e.g., cocaine, benzodiazepine, methadone) were significantly more likely to be African-American and have been seen by EMS in the one month prior to death. Those who died of opiates other than heroin (e.g., morphine, fentanyl, hydrocodone) were significantly more likely to be white.

“I’ve grown a lot as a researcher during the last two years here,” Heinz said. “We learn so much about the work of researchers, the articles they write, understanding their results and what their findings are. But it still surprised me as to how hard it is to design something yourself and to analyze the results.”

Ray, her thesis adviser, was particularly impressed with the fact that Heinz collected additional primary data for her research.

“She did an incredible job and set the thesis bar very high,” Ray said. “For the past year and a half she’s been collecting the overdose data but wanted to do something additional with the thesis and went on to search 1,200 names in two additional data systems.

“It was a lot of work,” he added. “But she kept a very good schedule and stayed on track.”

After graduating with her master’s next month, Heinz plans to enroll in the McKinney School of Law in the fall and study criminal law. She hopes her thesis work will be the source for future policy recommendations related to drug overdoses, noting that providing drug addiction treatment and education in jail and EMS settings could reduce rates of overdose-related deaths.

In Indiana, both the House and Senate have agreed to spend $5 million over the next two years for governor’s task force on drug enforcement, treatment and prevention.

“I’ve learned a lot and made a lot of connections with agencies that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Heinz said of her time with SPEA. “Hopefully the results of the thesis and the research that other professors are doing can help to prevent some overdoses at some point.”