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FIU Law adds scholars in addiction and mental health policy, environmental law
Left to right: Taleed El-Sabawi, John (Alex) Erwin and Amber Polk

FIU Law adds scholars in addiction and mental health policy, environmental law

October 28, 2022 at 3:31pm

Against a backdrop of critically urgent discourse around addiction and mental health policy and a broad spectrum of environmental law issues, FIU’s College of Law has hired three assistant professors who are expanding FIU Law’s scholarship and teaching in these areas of national importance. 

Taleed El-Sabawi joins the faculty as an assistant professor whose research focuses on addiction and mental health policy, politics and law. John (Alex) Erwin joins FIU Law as an assistant professor with areas of research in environmental and wildlife law. And Amber Polk joins the faculty as an assistant professor whose areas of research interest include animal rights and environmental law.  

“FIU Law is delighted to have these three accomplished teachers and scholars join us. They each have a proven record of success and their work will make vital contributions to our students and South Florida and beyond,” said Dean Antony Page.  

The addition of FIU Law’s newest faculty reflects a trend among top-performing law schools of hiring tenure-track professors with advanced degrees. Each of FIU Law’s new hires holds a Ph.D, compared to fewer than half of tenure-track law professors hired nationally last year. More than two-thirds of FIU Law’s tenured and tenure-track faculty hold advanced degrees.   

“Law professors with Ph.D.s are experts in their cognate fields,” noted Dean Page. “This enriches their teaching and allows them to better contribute to increasingly valuable interdisciplinary scholarship.” 

Addiction and Mental Health Policy 


Taleed El-Sabawi 

Assistant Professor of Law 

Ph.D. in public health, health services management and policy with a doctoral cognate in political science, The Ohio State University 

J.D., The University of Texas School of Law 

El-Sabawi has studied and written extensively on the narrative discourses surrounding opioid overdose deaths, federal administrative regulation of potentially habit-forming substances, and health insurance parity. Recently, she co-authored a model law that creates non-police behavioral health crisis response teams. She has provided technical assistance to federal, state and local governments looking to improve their responses to behavioral health issues. 

El-Sabawi specializes in the use of qualitative and quantitative methods to analyze texts, including congressional hearing testimony, regulations, legislation, news media, political speeches and interview transcripts.  

“My research looks at how policy change is achieved. What motivates legislators, how numbers are used to influence policy, and what stories we tell with the data,” she says. 

El-Sabawi believes today’s opioid crisis has been caused by the criminalization of drug use.  

“Every overdose is a policy failure,” says the Miami native. “If we moved to more of a public health approach, if we had a safe supply, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”  

El-Sabawi would like to see harm reduction – a practice in which drug users are treated with compassion and offered access to healthcare, social services and treatment – implemented on a wider basis. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), when used as part of a comprehensive prevention strategy, harm reduction plays a significant role in preventing drug-related deaths.  

Environmental Law  


John (Alex) Erwin 

Assistant Professor of Law 

Ph.D. in genetics, University of Arizona 

J.D., University of Arizona 

Erwin’s background is in wildlife conservation and genetics. He experience includes field work, wet lab genetics and bioinformatics, and he has worked with everything from freshwater mussels to jaguars. His dissertation work explored the effects of sport hunting on mountain lion populations and aided the reintroduction of black-tailed prairie dogs into Arizona. 

In his several years as a conservation geneticist, Erwin worked often with wildlife agencies. Those experiences sometimes left him frustrated. He thought a law degree would aid his efforts as a biologist, but he surprised himself.  

“I found myself thinking about how my work could be applied more broadly,” he says. “I decided I could make more of an impact as a legal scholar who’s got a background as a wildlife biologist than I could as a wildlife biologist who has a law degree.” 

His research is in environmental law and natural resources law, and he’s published in peer-reviewed scientific journals as well as law reviews. To date his research has focused on three issues: wildlife conservation and management; genetic engineering and related biotechnological developments; and, more broadly, the interplay of science, law and policy. An article he wrote on a policy for hybridization under the Endangered Species Act was recognized as one of the top environmental policy-relevant articles from 2016-2017. 

A native Floridian, Erwin says he returned to the Sunshine State and came to FIU Law, in part, because he wanted to focus his efforts on Florida species. “Florida is one of the few eastern states that has incredible biodiversity of species. That really appeals to me.”  

Erwin would like to improve how agencies incorporate novel scientific developments into wildlife conservation. His recent work charts a path for the agencies to use genetic engineering for wildlife conservation. Previously, he developed a framework for the agencies to determine when hybrids (crosses between two different species) should be protected. 

“The science and the species keep evolving,” Erwin says, “And our laws haven’t caught up.” 


Amber Polk 

Assistant Professor of Law 

Ph.D. in philosophy, University of Illinois 

J.D., University of Illinois College of Law 

 A legal philosopher with a primary interest in our collective environmental crises, Polk’s research focuses on rights-based environmentalism as a legal, political and moral movement. Prior to joining FIU Law, she was the teaching fellow for the Environmental Law and Policy LLM program at Stanford Law School.  

Part of what attracted Polk, a Pennsylvania native, to FIU Law was Miami’s location as ground zero for many of the environmental challenges facing society today, including climate change, sea level rise, coastal erosion, the competition between people and wildlife for land and water resources. 

“A lot of science goes into policy decisions, but there’s more to it than that,” says Polk, who speaks earnestly about environmental justice. “There’s often a temptation to make environmental policy decisions by relying exclusively on scientific data and some form of cost-benefit analysis, but there are other normative factors to be considered, such as matters of fairness, which neither can address.” 

Polk points to recent events to illustrate the issues. 

“Take Hurricane Ian, for example,” says Polk, referring to the monster storm that pummeled southwest Florida when it made U.S. landfall Sept. 28 as a Category 4 hurricane. “Its aftermath presents many compelling questions of environmental protection and environmental justice. Do people rebuild as things were? Can they? Should we encourage them to? How do we support people who are displaced as a result of Ian’s destruction? How do we plan for a future that will displace people from the coastline? Being here stimulates a host of important inquiries in our environmental policy. Florida is a great incubator in that respect.” 

Polk is looking forward to working with her colleagues to ensure that graduates of FIU Law’s environmental program are prepared to face the future. 

“Law structures society, and so it plays a fundamental role in determining what society could be. The notion of civic education traces its roots to Aristotle, but it is more important now than ever,” Polk says. “Massive climate migration and justice issues will occur over the next 100 years in Florida. The generation of lawyers who are in law school today will be guiding those discussions. Let’s equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to be better critical thinkers.”