Ricky Bluthenthal (Merrill ’86, history and sociology)—pioneer, advocate and champion of health equity and social justice for disadvantaged and marginalized groups—was named the recipient of the 2022 Distinguished Alumni Award in Social Sciences.
The Distinguished Alumni Award in Social Sciences is awarded annually to graduates of the division whose careers are characterized by their sustained and exemplary contributions to society through research, practice, education, policy or service. The Dean of Social Sciences, Katharyne Mitchell, praised the recipient of this year’s alumni award.
“Dr. Bluthenthal’s influential and cutting-edge social research paves the way for forward-looking thinking on all the topics he studies,” said Mitchell. Dr. Bluthenthal as the 2022 Alumni Award Recipient.”
The prize giving will take place on April 20 as part of Graduate Week. Bluthenthal will be joined in the discussion by Alicia Riley and Naya Jones—UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professors of Sociology and Senior Faculty Members of UCSC’s Global and Community Health Program.
“I know many deserving social science graduates at UC Santa Cruz who have done amazing things, and the people who have been awarded before are amazing,” Bluthenthal said. “I am very happy to be recognized by UCSC.”
Bluthenthal has published over 170 manuscripts in peer-reviewed scientific journals, is a member of the editorial board of the International Journal of Drug Policy and Drug and Alcohol Addiction, and is associate editor of the Addiction section of the Annals of Medication.
He received the Senior Scholar Award from the Drugs and Society Section of the American Sociological Association in 2020 and the Distinguished Scientific Contributions to Public Interest Award from the Society of Addiction Psychology (Division 50) of the American Psychological Association in 2018.
Bluthenthal says his time at UC Santa Cruz changed his life and helped shape his career path.
“I had access to amazing professors who were willing to let me sit in their office and ask them thousands of questions about life, research and teaching,” Bluthenthal said. “Even after I graduated, the teachers I worked with were always in my corner, giving me moral support and even sometimes speaking directly on my behalf. My experience was amazing and I feel very indebted to the UC Santa Cruz.
While at UCSC, Bluthenthal was involved in the creation of campus-wide student government, the anti-apartheid divestment movement, and the adoption of an ethnic studies breadth requirement. He was also part of the Third World and Native American Student press collective. (TWANAS) where he met his wife, Nancy Berglass (Merrill ’85, community studies)—the 2010 recipient of the Prize for Distinguished Graduates in the Social Sciences.
After graduating in 1986, Bluthenthal then worked at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he focused on urban poverty issues for two years. He then continued his doctoral studies. in sociology at UC Berkeley, during which time he was hired to conduct one of the first epidemiological studies of HIV among injection drug users in the Bay Area. The study found high rates of HIV among people living in Richmond, Oakland and East Palo Alto who inject drugs.
“Faced with this, I had to face the fact that it was obvious that the government was not going to intervene to try to stop the spread of HIV in this population,” said Bluthenthal.
Due to the high infection rates found by the study, Bluthenthal helped start Oakland’s needle exchange program and ran it for five years while a doctoral student. Bluthenthal says the racial and social inequalities he has seen and experienced throughout his life motivate him to advocate for and help disadvantaged populations.
“There’s still a lot of talent on the table, because we have a system that discriminates against people, not only because of their race, but also because of their income,” Bluthenthal says. “We have a level of inequality that has only grown in my adult life—and it is a choice. We ended up accepting reduced life opportunities for people.
Currently serving as Associate Dean for Social Justice, Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and Professor in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and the Prevention Research Institute at The Keck School of Medicine from the University of Southern California, Bluthenthal designed and taught many pioneering courses.
Some of her current research includes both qualitative and quantitative research with homeless people who inject drugs, describing both their material and social circumstances. Bluthenthal is also looking at intensive case management for homeless people.
Bluthenthal has remained connected to UC Santa Cruz throughout his endeavors, having served on the Council of Alumni, the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Board of Directors, and as a generous donor. Bluthenthal will also be a speaker at UC World Health Dayhosted at UCSC May 7.
“I really and genuinely love UC Santa Cruz, and I’m really proud of the institution,” says Bluthenthal. “UCSC has a bright future.”