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Transitioning from Student to Professional in ABCT and the NTTR SIG

October 5, 2017

          Graduate school in clinical psychology is the ultimate test of synaptic pruning—those who successfully optimize their training experiences while weeding out unhelpful information come out as mature clinical psychologists. In my most formative professional years, I have relied on the work and opinions of my mentors and other researchers (many of them members and leaders of this SIG) to inform my research ideas. In this article—in light of the SIG’s 10th anniversary—I will share some of my personal reflections of why and how I became involved in the SIG, the top 3 most influential things I have learned from the SIG community, and some advice for graduate students who are interested in becoming more involved in neurocognitive and translational research.

          Psychological science captivated me from an early age. I grew up in an environment where mental health was not a major topic at the dinner table or in the Health class curriculum, yet I was always drawn to psychology because of the individual differences between people, and the many ways the brain can go awry. From year 1 in graduate school, I was thrown into a discourse about augmenting exposure therapy with agents like d-cycloserine to enhance treatment outcomes, and was working on a research study sitting at the crossroads of animal neuroscience research and clinical trials research. My path led me to join the SIG in 2012 as a senior graduate student hoping to find a professional home within ABCT. I was embarking on my dissertation at the time, in the midst of filing an Investigational New Drug application to the FDA to investigate whether oxytocin could modulate responses to social ostracism in patients with social anxiety disorder. To my excitement, I met people at all stages of their career—students, interns, early, mid, and late-career researchers—with similar interests, a mission to generate a greater translational research presence at ABCT, and a passion for mentorship.

          Since I joined the SIG in 2012, I have acquired immense knowledge about brain-behavior relationships as they pertain to mental disorders. I have distilled the top 3 most important things I have learned from the SIG community that have influenced my research and clinical work, into the following:

          (1) The brain is plastic! Neurons function dynamically and adaptively to the situation. They are constantly communicating with one another across space and time, and this has huge implications for the ways that the brain supports new learning. In my clinical work, I am often struck by the amount of new learning that takes place—new safety learning overriding years of reinforced contingencies between feared stimuli and harm expectancies. As a therapist, I often discuss with my patients the papers showing that brain functioning is improved after cognitive behavioral therapy. For patients who believe there is something intractably wrong with their brains, this kind of information can be enlightening, and provide hope.

          (2) Design your research methods based on the goals you wish to achieve. This was the topic of Dr. Greg Siegle’s presentation during the 2014 NTTR SIG pre-conference institute. His main point from the talk stuck with me: clarify the goals and outcomes of your research, and the methods will follow from that. I reflected on one part of the talk where he discussed being able to know at the outset whether someone would respond well to a treatment. As someone who has been interested in optimizing CBT outcomes, I was moved by this objective. I began to work on a research idea to use information about an individual’s baseline dysfunction as factors that could discriminate between responders and nonresponders to treatment. Neuroimaging became a logical complement to the behavioral measures I could employ to assess this question. This became the backbone of my project that I am now starting, which examines default network abnormalities in highly self-focused patients as a baseline biomarker of treatment response.

          (3) Stay open minded and collaborate. When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Just as brain regions and nodes work collaboratively across networks to orchestrate complex functions, so should we work together as clinical psychologists, social and cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists, and animal researchers, to understand the complexities of psychological dysfunction. Studying emotion separate from cognition is futile in the world of mental illness. This cross collaboration is potentially more cost-effective and time-efficient, as there are gold standards employed for every methodology that can be shared with one another, whether it be using a well-validated paradigm for a certain cognitive construct, designing an event-related fMRI task with optimal temporal precision, or conducting a randomized, controlled clinical trial. The integration of cognitive and affective neuroscience with clinical psychological science has already led to innovations with potential to improve clinical care, for example, by using neuroimaging as an assessment tool to deliver precision medicine, or by speeding up the rate of extinction learning through d-cycloserine in exposure therapy. For me, the concept of multidisciplinary collaboration translated into spending time volunteering in a neuroimaging lab to learn basic neuroimaging data acquisition and analysis skills, having conversations with animal researchers about oxytocin functioning in prairie voles, and learning from an endocrinologist about how to extract oxytocin levels from blood plasma and serum.

          For graduate students who are interested in becoming more involved in neurocognitive and translational research, especially at ABCT, my primary piece of advice is to join the SIG! There are tons of opportunities to participate in the pre-conference institute, attend the SIG meetings, sit in on some of the SIG-sponsored symposia, or go to the Friday evening SIG cocktail hour poster session at the annual convention, and network with SIG members to connect you to potential advisors and mentors down the road. The SIG leadership and executive committee also has a strong pulse on funding priorities, obtaining grant funding for your career development (at the predoctoral, postdoctoral, and early career levels), and suggestions for your research ideas. Another piece of advice consistent with the collaboration theme is to read broadly. Since joining the SIG, I have made an active effort to read outside of academic journal articles, such as credible news sources like the Wall Street Journal, and to listen to lots of different kinds of podcasts. I even started following well-known psychologists, geneticists, and neuroscientists on Twitter to follow their work! Brain research is everywhere, and expanding your outlets for what you read can only inform your research questions and ideas.

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