Grad Earns Addiction Psychiatry Fellowship at Columbia

Derek Blevins, MD grew up in rural southwest Virginia, one of the regions hit hardest by the nationwide opioid crisis. Today, he’s fighting the disease that plagues so many of his community members—addiction.

This summer, Dr. Blevins (AUC ’13) will start a fellowship in addiction psychiatry at Columbia University.

Dr. Blevins is currently Chief Resident of the psychiatry program at the University of Virginia (UVA), where he focuses on substance use disorders in addition to his administrative and leadership roles. He treats patients at a number of specialized psychiatric clinics, including child and adolescent, outpatient continuity, treatment resistant, student health, infectious disease, and buprenorphine maintenance (also known as Suboxone, a medication used to treat opioid addiction). In addition, he’s heavily involved in research.

UVA is familiar territory for him: It’s Dr. Blevins’ alma mater, where he earned his bachelor’s in biology and Spanish, and where he discovered his passion for addiction psychiatry. After graduating from UVA, Dr. Blevins stayed on as a research assistant for two years, working in clinical trials for medications to treat drug and alcohol dependence.

“Addiction just tears lives apart,” Dr. Blevins said. “Seeing people come in, looking for something to turn their lives around, had a big impact on me.”

One of the biggest reasons Dr. Blevins wanted to come back to UVA for residency was to be able to work with faculty and engage in research on a different level. Today, he’s doing just that: Dr. Blevins currently works with one of the principal investigators from his assistant days, who has served as a 10-year mentor to him.

He’s upped his research experience, too: One notable project focused on readmission rates for college students that presented to the emergency department and were discharged with a substance-related diagnosis. For that research, Dr. Blevins and his team connected the emergency room database with UVA Student Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to see if the students were using the resources available to get the recommended treatment.  

At Columbia, he’ll have even more time to devote to studies like this one. The addiction psychiatry fellowship is a two-year combined clinical and research fellowship, funded by the National Institutes of Health, with the goal of training future researchers.  He hopes to have a broader impact by developing novel treatments that utilize knowledge of clinical neuroscience to treat addiction, through medication development and emerging neurostimulatory treatments, like transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS).

“Psychiatry is such an art, for better or worse,” Dr. Blevins said. “Everyone’s brain is different. It would be impossible to find a treatment that works for everybody, because each individual functions differently at the biological, psychological, and social levels. It makes it exciting for me.”

A Unique Path

Despite his aptitude for medicine, Dr. Blevins had to go above and beyond in order to have even a fighting chance at his dream. His undergrad years were spent trying to get on an even footing with his classmates. Although Dr. Blevins had earned admission to Virginia’s top-notch flagship university, he hadn’t received the preparation that many of his peers had.

“I was challenged when I came to UVA,” said Dr. Blevins. “In rural Virginia, we just don’t have the same educational opportunities as northern Virginians. There wasn’t as much focus on advanced classes. The SAT was almost an afterthought. So undergrad was a lot of catching up for me, which doesn’t lend itself to getting into a U.S. medical school.”

Dr. Blevins was reluctant to spend more time beefing up his resume and reapplying. He knew it was the right time for him to go to medical school, so he began looking into international schools. He found a good fit in AUC—a supportive environment that pushed him to excel.

“The faculty were very invested in your success and clearly cared that you learned the material, but they weren’t going to spoon-feed it to you,” Dr. Blevins said. “I learned how to keep myself organized and motivated. I think that was a huge factor that led to my becoming chief resident—when people see you’re willing to take the initiative and be proactive, it goes a long way.”

When it came time for residency interviews, he found that his international experience was a differentiator as well.

“At first I was a little nervous about the Match, not knowing what to expect as an international medical graduate. I do get questions about it sometimes,” said Dr. Blevins. “Sometimes people are surprised that I went to the Caribbean for med school after going to UVA for undergrad. But when it came up in interviews, it was seen as a positive thing, that I took the initiative to do it. It was a unique experience that gave me a different perspective, and that was a strength for me. I interviewed at nine very good programs, and I matched at my number one choice.”

Since then, in addition to earning the chief resident position, Dr. Blevins has amassed a number of honors, awards, and presentations to his name. Two of his most recent recognitions include the Regional Travel Award Scholarship from the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry, and a Fellowship from the American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology.  He also recently collaborated with the Virginia Department of Health to develop content for addiction trainings, that has since been disseminated to healthcare providers across the state.

Dr. Blevins’ advice to medical students? “Reach out to someone. Express your interests, talk to a faculty member. People are generally more than willing to help you figure out what you want to do and find your passion,” he said. “And no matter where you come from and what you’ve done, if you’re really motivated and interested in doing something, you’ll find a way to do it.”