Living the Mission: UK Social Work Student Ryley Butler Receives Award for Research on Appalachia

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By Laura Hennigan

Ryley Butler Modaff, a student in the MSW program at the University of Kentucky College of Social Work, was honored as a recipient of the James S. Brown Graduate Student Award for Research on Appalachia at an on-campus celebration ceremony on April 27, 2023.

The award supports graduate student research focused on the Appalachian region and is named in honor of Professor James S. Brown, a sociologist on the faculty of the University of Kentucky from 1946 to 1982. Brown’s pioneering studies of society, demography, and migration in Appalachia helped to establish the field of Appalachian Studies at UK and beyond.

Butler Modaff has been working with Dr. Kalea Benner, Associate Professor and Associate Dean for Academic and Student Affairs, for the past year on understanding bias and stigma toward use of medication for opioid use disorders (MOUD) in Appalachia and rural Kentucky. She has presented their work at three regional conferences and is working with Benner to develop a manuscript as well. Butler Modaff shared that the proposed research “looks at the intersection of public health, policy, and social work in a way that focuses on implementation of treatment in rural communities. Public health barriers can be attributed to community-based stigma which may lead to a lack of utilization of treatment in Appalachia.”

“Ryley is the type of graduate student who embraces every chance to learn,” says Dr. Benner. “I am happy she has this opportunity to fund her research and think her findings will be meaningful in helping communities support those experiencing opioid use disorder.”

In the spirit of collaboration across units, colleges, and academic and community boundaries, the Appalachian Center and Appalachian Studies Program established the UK Appalachian Center Eller and Billings Student Research Award for research by UK students focused in and on the Appalachian region, especially toward furthering the conversation on sustainable futures in the region. Named after longtime UK historian Ronald D. Eller and longtime UK sociologist Dwight B. Billings, the award seeks to encourage and promote cutting-edge research across disciplines.

Receiving this award means a great deal both professionally and personally to Butler Modaff, who is from Appalachia and has seen both friends and family affected by the opioid crisis. “Being able to better understand the treatments that are available and why they may or may not be utilized is something that I think is vital as the third wave of the opioid epidemic continues.

Butler Modaff plans to use the award to continue her research on opioid use disorders, complete her MSW, and then further her graduate education. “My long-term goal is to be able to serve the community in which I was raised.”

For over 85 years, the College of Social Work (CoSW) at the University of Kentucky has been a leader in education. Our mission is clear: Through rigorous research, excellence in instruction, and steadfast service, the CoSW works to improve the human condition. Always, in all ways.

As the state’s flagship university, our mission is actualized through our deeds. Our faculty are renowned academicians dedicated to fostering the development of high-quality practitioners and researchers. As a college, we promote community and individual well-being through translational research and scholarship, exemplary teaching, and vital community engagement. We are committed to the people and social institutions throughout Kentucky, the nation, and the world.