“I’m excited that we’re hitting a point where people are publicly acknowledging their struggles, and [psychiatric illnesses are] becoming much more acceptable in the way that physical illness is treated. I think our society’s headed in a good direction.”
By: Michelle Johnson (2/18/22)
Has an interest in the mind always been present in your life?
I started out as a business logistics and marketing major as an undergraduate student. I didn’t find that major to be as exciting or fulfilling as I would’ve hoped so I explored other classes to take and then stumbled across a class focused on the history of how psychology evolved out of philosophy as a field of study. Part of that course involved historical and modern theories about mental illness, and I became incredibly fascinated by the attempts to understand how mental processes can be disrupted in individuals. I had a primary interest in being a psychotherapist after undergrad, and so I got a bunch of post-bac clinical experiences in residential care facilities in rural Pennsylvania.
[I was] helping long-term patients rehabilitate in the community when they get released from the hospital. Over time, I became frustrated with how little we knew about the mechanisms of the treatments which increased my interest in research.
What questions are most exciting to you right now?
I’m more and more interested by the dimensional nature of illness and how variations in what we call “healthy individuals” in the general population are at times difficult to separate from the variations we see in patient populations. That’s motivated in part by my interest in identifying pre-illness risk markers for psychiatric illness. If we can understand variability in the general population, we might be able to predict who’s vulnerable for an episode of psychiatric illness.
What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?
The gradual nature of progress is one of the frustrating parts of science for me. We’re learning a lot about how the brain supports a whole host of human behaviors and how aspects of those brain mechanisms might be disrupted in patients with psychiatric illness. [However], we still haven’t been able to come up with a good predictive model for specific individuals who might be vulnerable. That’s what my lab is striving to do: build predictive models for illness that are translatable into the real world.
What has ignited your passion for studying these questions?
I never found it hard to feel passionate about studying psychiatric illness because you can see the consequences of these illnesses in people’s lives in the real world. Family members, friends, colleagues struggle with psychiatric illness; it’s very present in our day-to-day lives.
Historically, people never really talked about psychiatric illnesses. In my parents’ generation it was sort of forbidden to discuss, there was almost a black mark against the individual or the family. For me, I’m excited that we’re hitting a point where people are publicly acknowledging their struggles, and it’s becoming much more acceptable in the way that physical illness is treated. I think our society’s headed in a good direction.
What is motivating in your day-to-day work? What’s difficult?
For more junior scientists and people interested in getting into the field, I think it’s important that you enjoy the day-to-day moments. The big rewards are variable, and they don’t come along that often. Things like publishing papers or getting grants happen occasionally, but it’s the day-to-day grind that you have to love. For me, the most fascinating aspect is problem solving, figuring out ways to work through different processing steps or questions that come up along the way. Also, the opportunity to have stimulating conversations with very bright people in the lab and in the scientific community [is one of] the most exciting things for me.