One of the coolest things about being a scientist is the privilege of interacting with bright, creative women from a variety of disciplines. Actually as a grad student, I somehow became the token cancer bio girl at many psychology social events, and that’s where I met Dr. Lauren Bylsma. Since we share a love of delicious food, dark beer, random adventures, and of course science stuff…we became great pals.
Lauren is currently a postdoc studying the causes of depressive disorders. Depression cost over $83 billion each year in lost productivity and medical expenses. This is more than the war in Afganistan, however unlike that war, depression is an ongoing battle with no absolute end. She is also an expert on emotional reactivity (why do we cry?) and her work has been covered through multiple popular media outlets including Scientific American.
I’m originally from New Orleans, Louisiana. I did my undergrad at Penn in Philadelphia where I also stayed after graduation working a couple of years as a research assistant in cognitive neuroscience. Following that I completed my MA and PhD in Clinical Psychology at University of South Florida in Tampa and did a clinical internship at the VA Hospital in Seattle. I just started a postdoctoral scholar position at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
What is your research background?
When I first started undergrad I was a premed Biology major and I got involved in some biomedical research before switching to Psychology. My first Psychology study was my senior honors thesis examining several treatment approaches for snake phobia. We actually used a live snake with college students who had a snake phobia and administered exposure therapy, cognitive therapy, and a combined approach. Later I stayed at Penn a couple of years to work in neuroimaging and cognitive science research before ultimately deciding to go into Clinical Psychology. During graduate school I worked with Jon Rottenberg in research examining emotional reactivity and regulation in major depression. My research has used a multi-method approach incorporating the use of psychophysiology (both cardiac and EEG), behavior, and experiential measures (including sampling daily life). Now I’m working with Maria Kovacs at Pitt in longitudinal research examining predictors of the development of depressive disorders in high risk children who had a parent with a history of childhood onset depression. We also continue to use a multi-method approach, including psychophysiology, neuropsychological assessment, behavior, experience, and parental ratings.
I initially got interested in Psychology because Psychology is a relatively newer science and I feel that so much is still yet to be learned about the brain and how it works and how psychopathology develops. I got interested in depression specifically given how prevalent a problem it is and the high cost and burden to society. Also, currently although we have psychotherapy and medication treatments for depression that are effective at alleviating symptoms, most people don’t get completely better with current treatments and remain at risk for residual symptoms to continue or relapsing into a new episode. And emotions have always fascinated me because they are so challenging to study. It can be easy to operationalize something like different types of memory, for example. But with emotions things are still pretty fuzzy and people are still debating about what an emotion even is and how we should define or measure it. I also like Clinical Psychology because of the flexibility to do a combination of research, teaching, mentoring students, and clinical work so I’m not always doing the same thing.
What was your aim in life as a teenager?
I was always interested in furthering my education and knew I either wanted to be a medical doctor or a scientist. At that point I didn’t know much about career paths in psychology or research but knew I wanted to do something science related that would also be a challenging and rewarding career. I guess I’ve always been somewhat of a nerd 🙂
How has your experience been so far?
I’ve definitely enjoyed the research aspect, though there are often challenges and disappointments one must face, such as paper rejects, failures to get grant funding, or petty political issues within a department or interpersonal issues with faculty or lab members one interacts with. One issue specific to Clinical Psychology is the balance between getting good research experience/publications vs. ensuring you’re also getting good clinical training. Clinical internships in the US are very competitive with around ~25% not getting matched to a site each year. An internship is required to graduate even if you want to be research focused and it can cost a lot of money applying and interviewing at all these places, as well as the cost of probably moving to another location across the country for a year long position that doesn’t pay much. That was probably the most stressful aspect of getting a Clinical Psychology Ph.D. and it’s important for people interested in Clinical Psychology to be aware of in the beginning. But overall, I’m happy with what I’m doing and where I’m at in my career now. I see many excited research possibilities ahead and look forward to being an independent investigator with my own lab in a few years.
Do you think students can become friends, or at least on facebook, or is it necessary to maintain a discipline to create a stable classroom environment?
This is a tricky question. I think it’s problematic while a course is still ongoing because it can create role conflicts or appear as favoritism (since not all students will be friended). I think it can be more acceptable after a course if finished of I have one colleague who setup a special Facebook page just for communicating with students so it is more of a professional identity where personal things are not posted.
Have you heard about MOOC courses available through Coursera, EdX, etc? What are your thoughts on them?
I have heard of them and think it’s a great idea. I actually signed up for a couple on Coursera to see what it is like but ended up not having time to complete them with my busy research schedule. But it seems like a fantastic way for people all over the world who may not have access to the education otherwise to have an opportunity to learn. I hope these options continue to expand.
Being in academia for a number of years, do you have any advice for students who are just starting out?
Start getting involved in research as early as possible. Find something you are excited and passionate about that you can see yourself working on for years. Academia is a long road so important to do something you really like and can be committed to.