California State University, Long Beach
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Center Continues Important Work

Published: September 16, 2013

Dennis Fisher probably needs a vacation, but he’s not about to take one.

“I haven’t taken a vacation in 25 years and that’s not exaggerating,” said Fisher, the director for CSULB’s Center for Behavioral Research and Services.

And it seems he is ok with that. He loves what he does. He even admits to being a bit neurotic about it.

“You have to have certain neuroticism about being a researcher,” he said. “Pretty much all the researchers I know are like this.”

Along with center associate director Grace Reynolds, who also happens to be his wife, Fisher has run the facility which conducts social and behavioral research on health and substance-use related issues since 2000. He said that close relationship may very well provide the facility with its best chance of survival.

“On one hand, we’re working all the time and on the other hand, we’re working all the time,” he joked. “I think it’s the only way we could have survived, each of us knowing how much pressure there is here. We’re both thinking about it all the time. We might get a small break, but there is so much pressure to try to keep this center alive and to solve all the problems, we’re always dealing with it.”

And the work they do at the center is important, quite often life-altering.

“The major attributes of the center are that it serves underserved individuals in the downtown Long Beach area,” said Zed Mason, interim associate vice president for the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs who oversees the center and pointed out that its location is in what many would consider a high-crime area. “The type of research work they do aims to help individuals with very low income, many of whom are destitute, have no health insurance and often have transmittable diseases such as AIDS and other STDs. I give them much credit.”

“We’re located in this area so the population we work with has easier access to us,” said Fisher. “Depending upon what the study or contract was, the population we work with has varied over time to a certain extent, but it’s sort of the same population.”

Few people really understand the work the center does and its scope as well as Mason, a longtime researcher himself.

“Very few people on campus understand what this means, but when Zed Mason came and visited us for the first time a couple of years ago when he was head of IIRMES (Institute for Integrated Research in Materials, Environments, and Society) and associate dean, he said ‘You and Grace are under a tremendous amount of pressure,’” said Fisher. “He understood it because he understands soft money. We have to support everything—all the rent, the utilities, the communications to campus, the telephones, all of the repairs. We have to pay for every single thing.”

Knowing that, it’s little wonder Fisher hasn’t seen fit to take even the shortest of vacations during his tenure as the center director. He simply doesn’t have time. Sometimes the center’s existence is tenuous at best, but oddly enough, Fisher seems to embrace the challenge.

“We are now going through the eighth plan to shut the center down in the last 13 years, so it happens all the time,” said Fisher. “We’ve always gotten something at the last second and managed to survive for a while longer, but that’s typical for soft money.

“If this facility shuts down the community would lose a valuable resource and part of the safety net for this population,” he added. “The population that we’re right in the middle of here is basically desperate for survival. In 2009 we lost $600,000 in one week so we thought we were dead on a Friday and were making made plans to shut down. We had put in eight proposals and the following Monday we got one of them with (Center For Health Care Innovation Director) Kevin Malotte, so we were alive again.”

“They have been incredibly competitive on the national arena in terms of getting funding,” said Mason. “Not only are they doing good for the community and those individuals which I think many of us tend to ignore, but the extraordinary funding history of the center demonstrates the regard the scientific community has for their research. Their research prowess has really placed the center on the national map with regards to this type of research activity. I think one of the things that differentiates successful researchers is their passion and drive. In Dennis’ case it’s clearly serving these individuals and coming out with tractable solutions to a very important collective social problem.”

And while keeping the center financially afloat is Fisher’s weighty responsibility, keeping up-to-date with what’s taking place in the world of research is equally important.

“Even though it’s a tremendous effort to keep current, we’re keeping current,” he said. “We have to force ourselves to do so not only with the research methods, but also the research literature. You have to be current on the methods. The methods today didn’t even exist when I was doing post-doc work, so everything has advanced tremendously.

“You are always reading the literature and you never know the literature as well as you think you do,” he added. “You are always working on grant proposals and you are supposed to know everything up to date because if somebody has already done what you are proposing then you’re not going to get funded.”

Mason noted that Fisher’s combination of character and metabolism conspire to make him a very intense individual who is driven, probably more than most. The need to find funding on a continuing basis is also a major driver.

“But, if funding was not an issue, I don’t think he would change necessarily, he’s just that type of individual; he would just redirect his energies,” said Mason. “That’s really what it takes to be a successful researcher and that’s probably what differentiates him from many others and why he has been so successful getting funding. You dedicate your life to it to the exclusion of everything else.”

Yes, even vacations.