Researcher Spotlight

This resource showcases some of the researchers who are focused on anti-human trafficking efforts. Are you a researcher focused on human trafficking or do you know someone we can highlight? Click this link to apply for an interview and have the chance to be featured in our researcher spotlight.

Thema Bryant-Davis

Written by Narissa Lane, HT-RADAR Intern

Thema Bryant-DavisDr. Thema Bryant-Davis is a passionate advocate for human trafficking prevention through research. She prides herself on raising awareness around xenophobia and racism within human trafficking. She understands the intricate complexity of how an individual’s background and identity can make them particularly vulnerable to human trafficking. She has been recognized by the American Psychology Association for her research on interpersonal trauma and the societal trauma of oppression. She was chair of their Committee of International Relations in Psychology and has been a Representative to the United Nations. In 2021, she was elected president of the APA, and in 2023 was the youngest to hold the title. She describes herself as a Psychologist, Educator, Minister, and Sacred Artist.

Dr. Thema’s areas of expertise include domestic abuse, sexual abuse, war trauma, human trafficking, racism and discrimination, clinical psychology, and mental health. As of 2019, she has 22 research publications centered around the context of trauma, specifically child abuse, partner abuse, sexual assault, and the societal trauma of racism. Much of her published work explores the cultural context of surviving sex trafficking for African American women and girls and the historical trauma that continues to affect their minds and body.

She was inspired to fight human trafficking when her peers continued questioning, “What would you do if you were enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade era?” She often responded by saying slavery has not been eradicated as it still exists within the human trafficking world. Her current research focuses on survivors and their recovery utilizing psychotherapy while working to support their education. Reintegration for survivors of sex trafficking is very important to her as Black women and girls are more at risk of being trafficked than any other demographic. While working with survivors, she utilizes solution-focused therapy to help them heal from their trauma and find outlets to reintegrate them back into the community.

She is currently a graduate professor at Pepperdine University, where she teaches classes such as social psychology and trauma in diverse populations, and assists students in writing their dissertations. Before then, she taught at Princeton University, where she became the coordinator of their Sexual Harassment / Assault Resources and Education (SHARE) Program, which provided a space for intervention and awareness for sexual assaults, sexual harassment, and harassment based on sexual orientation on their campus. She often invites her students to her church, where she leads a mental health ministry, so they can gain experience working with people in their community. She believes in the importance of going into one’s community to help where they can rather than waiting for people to reach out to them first. Working with students has inspired her to continue her work in spite of nearing burnout. Their zealousness for human trafficking prevention allows her to recognize she is not alone in combating human trafficking.

Given the high burnout rate within the anti-human trafficking sector, she purposely sets aside time for self-care. Being a sacred artist, she believes thinking holistically and focusing on the mind, body, and spirit are keys to caring for the self. Her main focus is the body, which she finds to be the most neglected of the three. Until this past year, she taught modern, liturgical, and lyrical dance to the youth in her community. She finds dance can be empowering as it can help survivors of sexual trauma reclaim their bodies.

Dr. Thema is a two-time TEDx speaker and has published four books. Her podcast and book, both titled Homecoming, explore healing generational trauma and were nominated for NAACP awards in their respective categories. She expressed what a great honor it was to receive the nomination as it affirmed that her psychological focus could be put to practical use for everyone. She emphasized the importance of bringing the fullness of her work by utilizing her multiple gifts to impact human trafficking: psychologist, educator, minister, and sacred artist. She said, “Do not feel you have to restrict yourself to one choice when you have multiple options and gifts. You can use them all to change the world.”

To find Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis, visit her website, listen to her Homecoming Podcast, read her research, or follow her on LinkedIn.

Celia Willamson

Written by Kyla Kinzle, CJR Student Initiatives Coordinator

Celia Williamson

Dr. Celia Willamson is a distinguished professor at the University of Toledo who has dedicated her career to the anti-trafficking effort. Dr. Willamson is the founder of the annual International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference in Toledo and the Lucas County Human Trafficking Coalition, she is the chair of the Research & Analysis Subcommittee for the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission and works as an Editorial Manager for the Journal of Human Trafficking. In 2015, she founded the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute at the University of Toledo. Her passion for providing tools and resources to those entering and leading in the movement against trafficking and exploitation has led her to create her podcast, Emancipation Nation, which is “providing advocates, and those that want to be advocates, ways to competently fight various forms of human trafficking” (Spotify, 2022). 

Dr. Williamson was initially exposed to trafficking when she was growing up, although she did not understand what it was until much later.  She explains, “I grew up in a high poverty, high crime area. I had friends trafficked into the sex trade, I am the only one who graduated high school and went to college.” After receiving her undergraduate degree in social work from the University of Toledo, she began to work in her community as a social worker. She was intrigued by how and why women got involved with prostitution, but the only research available was on prostitution and HIV Her ties to her community would prove vital as she began to learn about the trafficking and exploitation that was occurring.

During her master’s program, Dr. Williamson was on the streets three times a week for six months learning, as she said, “I was learning how they stay safe, do deals. I was learning about the life. And as I talked to the women, I just saw the need, the disrespect, the oppression, the stigma and the invisibility. I heard how the people were not being held accountable. These women were very much seen as disposable.” In 1993 Dr. Williamson opened the first direct service program for women and youth involved in prostitution in the region. She sat down with women, heard their stories, and asked them what they needed. “We didn’t wait for money, grants, or permission; we just did it. I asked the ladies what they would do and what is needed in the program.” Clearly, Dr. Williamson was passionate about serving and advocating for the members of her community experiencing trafficking. When she was asked what had motivated her, she answered “the stories, when you hear a compilation of stories and you cannot believe that someone’s life could be like that. Then it motivates you and what I mean by motivates you, I mean it pisses you off.” 

 As Dr. Williamson spoke on her experiences, the theme of narrative and stories began to emerge. Throughout her career, she has come up against harmful narratives that stood in the way of making progress in the field. There are harmful narratives about the women she was working with, as she recalled “My colleagues in the profession were wondering why I was throwing my career away and helping “those women.” They would say ‘you could be doing better things, you really can’t help them.’” There were harmful narratives around who is trafficked, “If you look at images that are shared by many organizations when talking about sex trafficking, you will see tons of little frail white girls. I can tell you that statistically, it is more women of color who are trafficked. The LGBTQ community is at higher risk, people of color are at higher risk, people with developmental disabilities, foreign-born populations. Those populations are at higher risks, but we go around saying everyone can be trafficked as if everyone is at equal risk and that is not true.”

Another emerging narrative that is detrimental to the movement is about men and boys who are trafficked. Dr. Williamson explained, “There is shame, stigma, invisibility when it comes to men who are trafficked. When you talk about gang members, some of them definitely meet the definition of labor trafficking victims, but we are not interested in seeing them as victims. There is a lot of trafficking going on in prisons, but do we care? All of those things that are happening to men but we do not have the political will to be interested and let alone do anything about it.” You can read more about prison labor here and California’s recently rejected involuntary servitude amendment here

There are also contradicting narratives about sex trafficking versus labor trafficking. She said “If you are looking for sex trafficking, you will certainly find sex trafficking but some communities are not even looking for labor trafficking, so can you really say that sex trafficking is more prevalent than labor trafficking? People are usually more motivated to find children who are being trafficked than, say, someone who was brought to the country illegally and is being trafficked. It is political.” Dr. Williamson reminds us that while there are many harmful narratives, “narrative is a force for change.” People can begin to create positive changes when they confront harmful narratives and begin to expose the truth. Dr. Williamson hopes everyone will “Start telling the truth, dispel misperceptions, and get behind the issues that really do help the people they are intended to help.” This is why research and advocacy are so important, they are powerful tools of truth.

Dr. Williamson continues to work on dispelling harmful narratives and exposing the truth. Looking to the future, she is hopeful. This August 24 – 26, the International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference has been moved online. This has allowed them to reach more developing countries, their tools and information are now accessed by a wider audience than ever before. The emancipation nation podcast continues to provide tools and resources to the public, teach people how to walk alongside survivors, and advocate for best practices. For Dr. Williamson, the next chapter looks like implementing survivor journey groups and focusing on helping survivors heal from their trauma, and more to “thriverhood.” Every day, Dr. Williamson sees signs of hope in watching the movement grow, meeting people who have been through programs and they are doing really well, and seeing people of divergent backgrounds get along and tackle this issue together. 

To find Dr. Celia Williamson, visit her website, listen to the Emancipation Nation podcast, learn more about the International Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference, see her research, or follow her on Facebook or Linkedin.


Katherine Bright

Written by Katie Quinn, CJR Student Initiatives Coordinator

Katherine Bright is a passionate and talented researcher with experience in both direct service and research settings. Since her early work in direct care, Bright worked with 12-18-year-old boys who were in and out of foster care and/or coming out of juvenile detention centers. From there she worked as a case manager for homeless teen mothers. This encouraged her to spend most of her early time in research looking into child abuse and victimization of teen mothers because she stated that there needed to be a larger emphasis on “looking into the ways that racial and economic disparities construct different narratives for similar cases of child abuse—who does society deem worthy of care and who is left to fend for themselves in the aftermath of a trauma.” Since then, her research has expanded, looking into the correlation between financial insecurity and homelessness among teenage parents, commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), adult sex trafficking, and domestic and international labor trafficking.

Bright notes that her academic career and experience as both a student and researcher fueled her to look into needed changes in the anti-trafficking sector, one being the implementation of trauma-informed training for researchers in academia. Her research is fueled by her relationships and conversations with the demographic she’s studying during her clinical work. “If you don’t have stories and faces… as you’re doing this work, the reason that you’re pushing forward gets diluted by a lot of your own professional desires.” She reflects that clinical work is not always given the importance it deserves in academia. Direct experience is particularly important when showing up to vulnerable communities. This human interaction gives a full grasp of the impact of complex trauma on a population. Without the proper trauma-informed training, studies can cause harm and retraumatize the people they are meant to support. Bright proposes macro-changes in structural shifts that encourage trauma-informed research and survivor-led spaces so that they can be in charge of their own recovery process.

Before Bright worked in HT, she worked in the San Diego foster care system with boys and noticed a severe gap in HT screenings and staff training for recognizing boys being trafficked. She recalls that most of the boys she worked with, both those in foster care and those returning from juvenile detention, were victims of violence. There are little to no outlets for men to begin a safe recovery process because we don’t see traditional trauma-informed approaches that meet their experiences of living in a hyper-masculine context. Bright said that the men she had worked with for the last twenty years will often tell her that they don’t see themselves reflected in the anti-trafficking movement and don’t always feel comfortable in recovery spaces that have largely been built by women for women—which can dissuade them from engaging with services or reaching out to survivor communities. While researchers and service providers are seemingly starting to move on the gaps in screening and support for men in sex trafficking she worries about the erasure of what we already know—that men make up the majority of victims in labor trafficking cases. Bright recommends a “Yes And” approach. Yes, we can and should do a better job about equity for men in sex trafficking AND, we need to realize that equity for men who experience labor trafficking hasn’t happened either, despite our knowledge of how many men experience this form of victimization each year. We can’t erase their victimization in the process of trying to do better in other areas. If we say we care about men then we should also care about getting male survivors of labor trafficking what they need, in the ways they need to.

In her work thus far, Katherine Bright has made tremendous strides in progressing HT research. One of her most recent publications, A longitudinal evaluation of a survivor-mentor program for child survivors of sex trafficking in the United States, critically assesses a CSEC survivor-mentor program to see if youth who participated in it experienced any significant changes in victimization, social support, and coping. In the near future, she hopes to use her HT research experience to develop ways to create and support a curriculum to train other researchers and students in trauma-informed practices so research can continue to highlight evidenced-based practices to uplift victims and survivors of trafficking without causing harm in the process.

More Work by Katherine Bright can be found HERE.

Bandak Lul 

Written by Katie Quinn, CJR Student Initiatives Coordinator
Bandak Lul is a program specialist with the Texas Office of the Attorney General. Previous to this, he worked at the Arizona State University Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (ASU STIR) for 5 years where he published numerous research projects looking at characteristics and patterns of labor trafficking in the United States. Bandak has also served as a member of the Human Trafficking Leadership Academy (HTLA), the Global Human Rights Hub (GHR), and the Global Association of Human Trafficking Scholars (GAHTS). Along with serving, he was an advocate for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service and was a national leader for the LIRS-Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. These experiences shaped Bandak to become a leading force in research and immigrant advocacy on a national level. Bandak’s perseverance and drive have benefitted not only the lives of immigrants and refugees but have also contributed to education and action for the general public.
Bandak Lul came to the United States in 2006 as a refugee from South Sudan. He encountered various challenges throughout the process, such as leaving part of his family behind and entering into a new culture but confronted these struggles head-on. Shortly after his arrival, Bandak took it upon himself to pursue additional education. “We were taught that you could make a difference by having knowledge of something that you learn in school,” he explained. His dedication to making a difference through education led him to get his master’s in social justice and human rights at Arizona State University and pursue research at ASU until August of 2021. When entering his master’s program, he became interested in looking at the refugee experience in refugee camps and when seeking asylum. In this research, Lul saw that human trafficking was a common theme in these settings, and from there dove into his research focused on human trafficking of migrants and refugees in the United States. Since then, he’s published numerous studies on labor trafficking, one of the most recent being an eight-year analysis of child labor trafficking cases in the United States: Exploring characteristics, and patterns of child labor trafficking, published in 2021.
Being an accomplished leader within human trafficking research comes at a price, and Lul confronts the hardships of the field and his feelings of being overworked by focusing on self-care and the importance of seeing a therapist. Bandak states, “In this line of work there’s no way that anyone cannot be in some sort of coping mechanism. You have to have someone to listen to what you’re going through.” He said in order to be a good advocate and take care of yourself, you have to process what you are experiencing every day. As a black man who came to America as a refugee, he expresses there can be an added layer of pressure to continually prove himself as an academic. Lul says he can better process the situation by taking a step back and finding alternative ways to approach his role, not only helping him but those around him as well.
With his new role in the Texas Office of the Attorney General, Lul has plans to focus more on community outreach and directly impact the world of civil and criminal law. “My new role gives me opportunities to continue research in human trafficking,” he said. “However, the nature of my research might shift as it will be focused on case outcomes and reported cases to law enforcement agencies.” As he gets more acquainted with law, he hopes to create a future for himself in the executive branch and is even considering law school.  Lul pushes himself to his work directly with his surrounding community. In his new position, he hopes to have a hands-on impact and tackle the injustices of human trafficking through the government from a researcher’s perspective.
More Work by Bandak Lul can be found HERE.

Arun Kumar Acharya 

Written by Katie Quinn, CJR Student Initiatives Coordinator

Dr. Arun Kumar Acharya is a well-established researcher whose passion for human trafficking research shows through his work. Up until 2018, Arun taught and conducted research on sex trafficking at the Universidad Autonoma of Nuevo Leon, Monterrey, Mexico for 12 years. Arun is also the founder of the Mexican Center for Migration and Human Trafficking Studies in Monterrey. During his time in Mexico, he has published more than 50 research papers in journals worldwide and has published 6 books on human trafficking in Mexico. Since his time in Monterrey, he decided to shift gears and move back to East India where he has started conducting research on labor trafficking.

When discussing his transition from sex trafficking research to labor trafficking, Acharya said that one of the biggest reasons for the move was the lack of research in labor trafficking. In East India, thousands and thousands of families, mainly in the lower class, move to areas where labor trafficking is plentiful because they need jobs. Since COVID-19, the demand has increased exponentially and the traffickers are no longer just taking the males, but whole families with them as well. Acharya saw this problem increasing and dove into conducting research in hopes to help the families being exploited.

Acharya first became aware of human trafficking when pursuing his master’s in Gender Equity in Mumbai, India. Upon starting his program at a University in Mumbai, the largest red-light district in Asia, he frequently saw women on the street and began questioning why they were there. To encourage these thoughts, trafficking became a  discussion about gender equity, and Acharya knew this was something he felt called to educate himself. From there he pursued a Ph.D. in Mexico, however, whenever he expressed interest in human trafficking, he was frequently shut down due to a lack of awareness of the severity of trafficking in Mexico. He decided to continue his course regardless, and in 2006 he presented his thesis on sex trafficking and started working with the Mexican government on strategies to fight it.

In the 20 years that Arun Kumar Acharya spent working on human trafficking research, significant changes and improvements in trafficking laws have been made on a global scale. One of the greatest moments in his research career was in 2015 when he was invited to attend a conference in D.C. to present on the “Fragility of the Mexican State and Gender Inequality: The Case of Trafficking in Women.” During this conference, he discussed his research and the conflict of how sex trafficking is only being addressed as an issue of migration and should also be addressed as a health and gender equity problem. This moment changed the focus of his research and encouraged him to focus on labor trafficking as well.

Conducting research on trafficking in Mexico is not an easy job, and Acharya shares his personal difficulties working as a researcher throughout the years, “One of the biggest challenges is threats.” He explains how situations easily escalated during his studies and how he was threatened several times in the past. However, Acharya took these experiences and turned them into motivation. He expresses that if he is getting threatened for trying to have a conversation, the girls he is trying to help must be facing much worse. The idea of helping women out of these situations and giving them the opportunities to create a better future is the main reason Acharya is in this line of work and it motivates him to keep pursuing it every day.

In the next few years, Acharya is excited to lean into labor trafficking research in India and hopes to attend many more research conferences globally. In attending research conferences he hopes to continue building a network of people to learn from and grow together as human trafficking research continues to multiply.

More Work by Arun Kumar Acharya can be found HERE.

Dr. Monica Ulibarri

Dr. Monica Ulibarri is co-chair of the Research and Data subcommittee of our San Diego County Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, which partners and coordinates efforts with HT-RADAR. The San Diego County Human Trafficking and Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council has become a leader in San Diego County’s anti-trafficking work since its establishment in 2011 by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. HT-RADAR is connected to the Research & Data Subcommittee of the Advisory Council. The Co-Chairs of this subcommittee are: Lianne Urada and Monica Ulibarri. She is a Professor and Associate Program Director in the California School of Professional Psychology Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program at Alliant International University – San Diego, and holds an appointment as a Voluntary Associate Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego.

Dr. Ulibarri’s journey began as a bright undergraduate student at Claremont McKenna College. Serving as a young research assistant, she was given the opportunity to collaborate on a study on HIV cases in a women’s prison. During her interviews, she began to see common themes among the participants. There were either two scenarios presented, the partners had dragged the women into the situation that had them placed in prison, or they had done something in what they claimed to be defense of themselves or their children. This recurring narrative highlighted the gender-based violence that perpetuated these women’s stories. This experience sparked her interest in HIV prevention and gender based violence, in which she adopted a public-health perspective.

Staying research-focused throughout her education, she worked in different realms on mental health, HIV prevention, and gender-based violence. Her journey led her to conduct drug research at UCLA as she built her portfolio for clinical research. She attended graduate school at ASU, eventually coming back to San Diego at UCSD to contribute to an HIV prevention study. Many of the women Dr. Ulibarri worked with were not trafficked at the time, but had typically had some involvement with being trafficked at some point. Around this same time, she began to hear more about the trafficking issue that San Diego faced. In 2013, KPBS had a story on it. She realized that this social injustice took place right in her backyard. Her husband was conducting a study on adolescent dating violence research, and he found that adolescent dating violence could be linked to gang affiliation. The connections just kept on coming, opening her eyes to the intersectionality between gender-based violence, HIV risk, and exploitation. She began her term as co-chair of the research and data subcommittee in June 2019 alongside Dr. Lianne Urada.

She encourages those engaging in trafficking research to persevere. While discouragement is oftentimes inevitable, it is important to remember that this work is a long haul that is worth the delay of gratification. With enough drive and time to persist through obstacles that arise, you can achieve your goal.

Although there have been challenges in her effort toward uncovering and calling out injustice, Dr. Ulibarri is continually motivated by the participants she works with. She appreciates the opportunity to give them a voice while empowering them to make a difference through their experiences. As a part of the team, they work together to holistically impact the world around them.

Find work done by Dr. Monica Ulibarri here.

Dr. Lianne Urada, PhD, MSW, LCSW

Dr. Lianne Urada, PhD, MSW, LCSW is an Assistant Professor at SDSU in the School of Social Work, with a focus on Community Development within the Macro Social Work track. She is an avid and passionate researcher, involved in a wide range of many federally and privately funded grants. She serves as co-chair of the Research and Data subcommittee of our San Diego Regional Human Trafficking-Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Advisory Council alongside Dr. Monica Ulibarri. Dr. Urada’s passion shines through her work of extensive research projects and experiences.

Throughout her education, she was greatly influenced by her professors. While she was always interested in social activism, she was encouraged to pursue her own journey of activism through research after working with a Professor who focused on the WWII Japanese American Internment Camps in the U.S., which also had impacted her family. After she went directly from her undergraduate program to the Masters of Social Work program at UCLA, she was given the opportunity to do an internship on HIV in the Philippines (where she returned later to do her PhD dissertation). This was when HIV was at its height, and prevention was a major point of interest. She conducted outreach to women in the sex trade who worked in bars, massage parlors, and nightclubs. Her eyes were opened through this experience to the prevalence of human trafficking and the sex trade, leading up to its intersection with the HIV crisis. As she worked in the communities of Manila, she began to see the societal and structural issues that impacted women’s limited choices for employment that drove them into vulnerable situations. Thus, her eagerness to combat trafficking through intervention research began.

One of Dr. Urada’s core principles is to actively and continuously support the communities she interacts with. She doesn’t want to be a helicopter researcher, taking off once her study is done, never to be seen again. Instead, she acknowledges the deep connection she creates through her field work and passionately dives into the issues that those communities may face in the future. In each study, her favorite part of the work is being able to have direct interaction with the people. While she was in the Philippines completing her internship, she was followed every day by two little Filipina girls during her commute to work. Looking back, she finds hope in knowing that those girls were able to know about the drop-in center where they could receive services. Just by being there and meeting the community members, she made a difference. She still can remember the stories of people who struggled yet survived. The time she spent there, doing direct ground work, will always have a special place in her heart.

As a continual learner, intervention strategist, and innovative woman, Dr. Urada creatively addresses the interrelated sector of community issues and their ability to be fought with intervention research. She looks out for those who are the most hidden and marginalized, those that may not have access to beneficial services. We look forward to her valuable contribution as co-chair of the Research and Data subcommittee, and the work she continues to do in combating human trafficking.

Find work done by Dr. Lianne Urada here.

Dr. Carli Richie-Zavaleta

Dr. Carli Richie-Zavaleta DrPh, MASP, MAIPS, is an adjunct faculty member at the University of New England, where she mentors students through their capstone projects and practicum experiences. Dr. Richie-Zavaleta’s Researchfocuses on the intersection of social and healthcare services with the goal of amplifying the voices of survivors to influence policy and best practices across the board. Additionally, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta supports the ResearchCommittee for the San Diego County Human Trafficking & CSEC Advisory Council as an alternate co-chair and a researchconsultant. She is also the co-chair of the programming committee for the American Public Health Association’s Human Rights Forum. Dr. Richie-Zavaleta’s passion for her vocation shines through her work.

After her first Intro to Sociology class, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta was drawn to the field and inspired to pursue research by her Sociology professors. She learned from her professors and mentors showed her that research has the power to redirect attention and shape society. Dr. Richie-Zavaleta said, “I really liked that concept of using research one to bring out the voices of the vulnerable and using that knowledge to make changes in society.” After completing her Masters in Sociology, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta was introduced to a program in Costa Rica where she studied International Peace Studies and Conflict management. It was on that trip where she felt divine intervention call her attention to human trafficking. “I did not want to study this topic, especially at the beginning, it brought a lot of sadness to my heart, and I felt very hopeless.” After reading Dr. Kevin Bales’s book,  Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, given to her by a friend, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta felt that God showed her that she needed to work with vulnerable populations like survivors and victims of human trafficking. Continuing on her journey to find the work she felt called to do, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta became interested in public health. She recalls translating for families on mission trips being a very impactful moment. After experiencing the lack of healthcare access in Nicaragua and Mexico in her travels, Dr. Richie-Zavaleta pursued her Doctorate of Public Health.

Since then, Dr. Richie-Zalvaleta has published her work, taught at colleges and universities, and mentored students, all while balancing being a mom to her two children. Dr. Richie-Zavaleta’s studies on the intersection of public health and human trafficking such as “Compassionate Care—Going the Extra Mile: Sex Trafficking Survivors’ Recommendations for Healthcare Best Practices” has helped inform healthcare facilities’ best practices to notice the signs of human trafficking. Today, she is passionate about access to health care, the vulnerabilities of the homeless population, and bringing the voices of survivors to the table in order to influence training creating more “Evidence-based practices”. Her work is currently focused on getting a few manuscripts published this year and mentoring students. She is also looking forward to a potential grant for a research fellowship. In the future, she wants to continue to mentor students and develop her vision for expanding healthcare access across the world. Her inspiring story reminds one to listen to their calling to and work with passion. She continues to pursue her work as she inspires and mentors the future generations of interdisciplinary change makers.

More Work by Dr. Richie-Zavaleta can be found HERE.

Dr. Lara Gerassi 

Research in the field of exploitation is essential to understanding how to identify and combat trafficking as well as walk alongside survivors. What often gets missed is the people and the passion that drives this critical research. One such researcher, Dr. Lara Gerassi, is an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research focuses on changing outcomes for those who are involved or at risk of sex trafficking. Her most recent work Have you ever traded sex for money or drugs?’ Health care providers’ perspectives on sex trafficking risk assessments in clinics was published in March of 2021. It focuses on understanding the “perceived barriers to sex trafficking risk assessment among health care providers in a large health care organization.” Her work does not stop there; alongside her published research, Dr. Gerassi mentors and teaches the next generation of change-makers at the University’s Sandra Rosenbaum school of social work. She instills in her students a passion for people and brings light to the truth behind trafficking.

Dr. Gerassi was first drawn to social work in high school after being placed in the Natural Helpers program. In the program, she saw the challenges students were going through and began to see both the lack of structural support and oppression that exist and affect the outcomes for students. In her social work training, she learned about trafficking but thought of it as an issue far away, not something happening in her community. After discussions with people who have experienced exploitation, she soon realized that trafficking was entirely different than what she thought. Dr. Gerassi began to ask questions about what trafficking looks like in the United States, in her state, her neighborhood. Her work started with the hope of dispelling some of the commonly held stereotypes of trafficking, traffickers, and survivors that come in the way of positive change. When asked about some of the most impactful moments of her career, Dr. Gerassi replied that several small conversations with others in which myths about human trafficking were dispelled had been one the best moments of her career. This is why research like that of Dr. Gerassi is essential; understanding the truth behind what trafficking looks like is one of the first steps towards effective change.

As those who work in the anti-trafficking field know well, the work can be weighty. For Dr. Gerassi, it is essential to hold firm boundaries between work and family time. She takes time to do the things she enjoys, like running, baking, and spending time with her family. She also emphasizes how important it is to examine collective community care. She recognizes that self-care is a privilege since it often takes time and resources, which many do not have. She believes it is essential to look at how we can hold space in the workplace and take care of each other by structuring policies and norms to take care of each other while examining power structures that contribute to unhealthy boundaries. Another important aspect of caring for our community is finding professional groups that provide spaces for recharging work.

Feminist scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw and Patricia Hill Collins have inspired her work. These women and all the people who have lived experience with exploitation and continue to pursue justice and activism give her hope for change. Moving forward, Dr. Gerassi hopes to continue to create impact through her projects with a more hands-on approach. She wants to continue to be a good role model and mentor for her growing research team. Most importantly, she hopes to find balance as a working mom of two. Dr. Gerassi is an accomplished researcher, a passionate teacher and mentor, and one of the faces behind research in the field of exploitation. For more information about Dr. Gerassi or to explore her research, please visit this webpage hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Laura Murphy 

Dr. Laura Murphy is a professor of human rights and contemporary slavery at Sheffield Hallam University, located in Sheffield, United Kingdom. Her research focuses on trafficking and forced labor across the world. From her lively attitude to her deep passion for efforts against trafficking, Dr. Murphy is an example of the wonderful people behind critical research. Author of The new slave narrative: The battle over representations of contemporary slavery and Survivors of Slavery: Modern-day slave narratives, Dr. Murphy has used her research to bring the experiences of survivors of trafficking to light.

Dr. Murphy has a background in English literature as well as African and African American studies. Her transition into the world of anti-trafficking can be traced back to her PhD in African and African American studies. Dr. Murphy had been studying African depictions of the transatlantic slave trade. In the midst of her work, she began to learn about contemporary forms of slavery. In fact, upon reading an article from the New York Times comparing trafficking today to the transatlantic slave trade, Dr. Murphy was forced to question what modern day slavery really looked like. She said “I realized I could not keep working on historical slavery when there were people who were forced laborers today.” This new revelation guided her towards research and work in the field of forced labor and trafficking.

An educator to her core, Dr. Murphy finds her vocation in teaching both her students and the community via her research about forced labor and trafficking. Naturally she has taken the role of sharing her passion and knowledge with her students. Her work as an educator is fueled by hope. In fact upon reflection, Dr. Murphy sees her passion for education as a declaration of hope for the future, “My job as an educator is bound up in hope. The day you stop having optimism about humans is the day you have to stop being an educator.”

Yet sometimes, hope can feel faded when work in the anti-trafficking field is overwhelming. Dr. Murphy explains, “It is easy to convince yourself that you don’t deserve a break or fun or joy, but those who are being harmed do not wish us harm. Working ourselves into the ground or the hospital benefits no one.” When it comes to selfcare at work, Dr. Murphy finds great importance in taking long walks with her dog (which she advises every researcher to try). With honesty and compassion she encourages her students to understand that work is not everything and it is okay to rest. She reminds them that they cannot do good work if they are not taking care of themselves, whether that be dancing in the streets or playing with their dog.

Dr. Murphy is currently working on creating large data sets on the forced labor of the Uyghur populations in the north-western region of Xinjiang. Her goal is to create a data set so comprehensive that companies, governments and consumers cannot be ignorant to the origins of their products. Dr. Murphy and her team are building a team of academics who are working to build up this data. She looks forward to watching her team grow. Her work is critical to bringing forth change for those in the Xinjiang region. Dr. Murphy has produced research and writings that have helped many to understand the realities of trafficking. Her work springs from a love for education and a passion for fighting for justice. She is one of the many brilliant stories behind the research that drives the fight against human trafficking. For more information about Dr. Murphy’s research and career visit researchgate and the Sheffield Hallam University’s webpage.


Dr. Hanni Stoklosa

Attending Physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, founding CEO of HEAL trafficking, instructor on Emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School, and much more. Dr. Hanni Stoklosa is a brilliant leader in the field of anti-trafficking. Her dedication to serving others through her work is clear.

Dr. Stoklosa was raised with a heart for service. She recalled, “very early on it was instilled in me that my life was not for myself, my purpose for living is to serve others.” As Dr. Stoklosa found herself asking the question “What does the world need from me?”, she felt that becoming a doctor would be the most impactful way to use her energy and skills both in the world and for the world. While her early work focused on gender based violence and intimate partner violence, she moved into the anti-trafficking field after data was coming out that the majority of trafficked people access healthcare.

As Dr. Stoklosa began her journey into understanding human trafficking and its intersection to heathcare, she began to look into what other researchers, advocates, and professionals were already doing in the field. It was then that she met the core founding team for HEAL trafficking. Her team is made up of the “amazing champions and advocates for healthcare across the globe” that she had connected with at the beginning of her journey into the field of anti-trafficking.

As Dr. Stoklosa described, HEAL trafficking focuses on two different goals, operating out of a mindset of community. The first goal is to shift the conversation of Human Trafficking towards focusing on the intersection of public health and traffciking. Building up the capacity for health care systems and professionals to address human trafficking is essential to fighting trafficking. The second goal of HEAL is to work on building up the critical thinking skills and research literacy of the people and organizations in the anti-trafficking movement. In order to prevent programs that may be built on good intent, but actually cause harm, it is important that people really understand what statistics and research mean.

With conviction, Dr. Stoklosa believes that “we can have a world healed of trafficking someday.” She believes there is a path towards reconciliation and justice, if “We are able to put aside our own ideologies and really listen to one another.” Dr. Stoklosa finds hope wherever these  “courageous conversations” are taking place.