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Doctoral student on a mission to prevent intimate partner violence

Doctoral student on a mission to prevent intimate partner violence

March 8, 2021 at 9:56am

Violence is never inevitable. It’s always preventable. And Yanet Ruvalcaba is on a mission to stop it before it starts.

The psychology Ph.D. candidate was recently named an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) fellow, where she’s working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on a project to address an all-too-common problem impacting millions of people in romantic relationships — intimate partner violence. The abuse can be physical, sexual, psychological and financial. It can happen to anyone, no matter their age, gender or background. But, as Ruvalcaba says, in every case, it’s something that shouldn’t even happen in the first place.

Working with the CDC’s Sexual and Intimate Partner Violence team, Ruvalcaba is identifying early intervention programs and policies — especially at the childhood level — to prevent intimate partnership violence. The goal is to look at the issue through a wider societal lens, because violence is not an isolated event, but often tied to many other factors.

One risk factor for intimate partner violence is poverty. Economic stressors seep into the homelife, and especially relationships. The idea if that addressing economic issues — for example, through tax income credits — would not only help people struggling financially, but also reduce the risk for intimate partner violence.

These bigger policy changes could have far-reaching effects, and could possibly prevent other types of violence.

“Different types of violence — intimate partner violence, sexual violence, child abuse and neglect — have shared risk and protective factors. They overlap with one another,” Ruvalcaba said. “If you target one problem, you’re also targeting the other types of violence, as well.”

A first-generation college student, Ruvalcaba grew up hearing her mother say, “Education is the only thing I’m going to leave with you.” She internalized those words, letting them guide her along her journey, especially at FIU.

When she learned she needed research experience as an undergraduate, Ruvalcaba immediately looked for opportunities. She applied and was accepted to be a research assistant in FIU associate professor Asia Eaton’s PWR Lab. Ruvalcaba was a sophomore among graduate students. Naturally, she was nervous, wondering what she’d gotten herself into. That worry vanished when she realized she’d found herself in one of the most supportive, nurturing environments — one she never wanted to leave. So, she didn’t.

For eight years now, Ruvalcaba has worked under the guidance of Eaton. She’s helped conduct a groundbreaking nationwide survey on nonconsensual porn. She’s published five peer-reviewed journal articles. She collaborated with the Cyber Civil Rights Initiative — where Eaton serves as head of research — and Lotus House Women’s Shelter. Last summer, she was a data analyst for a Me Too report on the economic impacts of COVID-19 on survivors of color. She was a McNair Scholar and participated in a summer research program at the University of Notre Dame.

Now, Ruvalcaba is in the final stretch of her doctoral research. Building off her interest in the connection between technology and violence, her dissertation focuses on cyber dating abuse among young Latina women. It’s made up of three studies. The first explores the role of cultural factors, including ethnic identity and family support. Another looks at how cyber dating abuse relates to other type of violence, as well as health outcomes. The last will examine the role of friendship networks and how social norms that accept cyber violence can play a role in perpetrating it.

Ruvalcaba’s days are certainly busy. The fellowship is a fulltime 40-hour a week job. Her three cups of coffee keep her going well into the evening when she works on her dissertation. Her fiancé, though, is always there to cheer her on — and check her citations and reference. (After six years together, Ruvalcaba says while he might work in IT, he’s become an expert editor.)

Those hours poring over data, filling out Excel spreadsheet after Excel spreadsheet, add up to something greater for Ruvalcaba. They remind her that her research carries a greater purpose.

“Violence, like intimate partner violence and sexual violence, is not just something that happens once and it’s done. It has long-term life consequences and generational consequences,” Ruvalcaba said. “We can’t forget it is something that affects people. There are ripple effects that stem from it that are ongoing. But, it’s preventable. There’s a way to prevent it — and I want to use my research to be a part of preventing it.”