Ricky Bluthenthal (Merrill ’86, History and Sociology)—trailblazer, advocate, and champion of health equity and social justice for disadvantaged and marginalized groups—has been named the 2022 Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award recipient.
The Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award is awarded to graduates of the division whose careers are characterized by their sustained and exemplary contributions to society through research, practice, education, policy, or service. Social Sciences Dean Katharyne Mitchell had high praise for this year’s alumni award recipient.
Dr. Bluthenthal’s moving and cutting-edge social research paves the way for forward thinking in every topic he studies,” Mitchell said. “UC Santa Cruz’s Social Sciences division is honored to name Dr. Bluthenthal as the 2022 Alumni Award recipient.”
The award reception will be held on April 20th as part of Alumni Week. Bluthenthal will be joined in discussion by Alicia Riley and Naya Jones—UC Santa Cruz Assistant Professors of Sociology and core faculty members in UCSC’s Global and Community Health program.
“I’m aware of many deserving social science graduates at UC Santa Cruz, who’ve done amazing things, and the folks who had been previously awarded are incredible,” Bluthenthal said. “I’m very pleased to be recognized by UCSC.”
Bluthenthal has published over 170 manuscripts in peer-reviewed scientific journals, is on the editorial board of the International Journal of Drug Policy and Drug and Alcohol Dependence, and is an Associate Editor of the Addiction Section for Annals of Medicine.
He has 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 that his time at UC Santa Cruz was life-changing and instrumental in shaping his career path.
“I had access to incredible faculty 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 faculty that I worked with were always in my corner, giving moral support, and even sometimes intervening directly on my behalf. My experience was amazing, and I feel very indebted to UC Santa Cruz.”
While at UCSC, Bluthenthal was involved in the creation of the campus-wide student government, the anti-apartheid divestment movement, and the adoption of an ethnic studies breadth requirement. He also was a 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 Social Sciences Distinguished Alumni Award.
After graduating in ’86, Bluthenthal went on to work at the Institute for Policy Studies, where he focused on issues of urban poverty for two years. He then went on to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology at UC Berkeley, during which time he was hired to conduct one of the first HIV epidemiology studies among people who inject drugs in the Bay Area. The study found high rates of HIV among individuals living in Richmond, Oakland, and East Palo Alto who inject drugs.
“In the face of that, I had to grapple with the fact that it was obvious the government wasn’t going to step in to try and arrest the spread of HIV in this population,” Bluthenthal said.
Because of the high rates of infection the study uncovered, Bluthenthal helped start the Oakland needle exchange program, and ran it for five years while he was a doctoral student. Bluthenthal says that both racial and social inequities he has seen and experienced throughout his life, motivates him to advocate for and aid disadvantaged populations.
“There’s a lot of talent that gets left 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’s only grown in my adult life—and that’s a choice. We’ve ended up accepting diminished life opportunities for people.”
Currently serving as the Associate Dean for Social Justice, Vice Chair for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Professor in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences and the Institute for Prevention Research at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, Bluthenthal has designed and taught numerous pioneering courses.
Some of his current research includes both qualitative and quantitative research with unhoused people who inject drugs, describing both their material and social circumstances. Bluthenthal also looks at intensive case management for houseless individuals.
Bluthenthal has stayed connected to UC Santa Cruz throughout his endeavors, having served on the Alumni Council, the UC Santa Cruz Foundation Board of Trustees, and as a generous donor. Bluthenthal will also be a speaker at UC Global Health Dayhosted at UCSC on May 7.
“I really do authentically love UC Santa Cruz, and I’m really proud of the institution,” Bluthenthal says. “UCSC has a bright future.”