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Kara Christensen

Mentor Spotlight | May 2021

Department: Psychology

Describe your research/creative scholarship in a few sentences that we can all understand:  My research identifies new clinical targets to improve our treatments for eating disorders. Right now, two of these new clinical targets are improving support for caregivers of people with eating disorders and studying sleep dysregulation in people with eating problems. I aim to develop and test psychological treatments that have the potential to improve quality of life for patients and their families.


Q: How did you first get interested in doing research or creative work?

A: I started doing research when I was an undergraduate student. I liked my psychology coursework and wanted to get more involved with generating the findings that I was reading about in my textbooks. I worked in a developmental psychology lab at first and then, wanting to get more hands-on experience with clinical populations, started working at the University of Chicago Adult Weight and Eating Disorders Clinic. My undergraduate mentor, Eunice Chen, saw potential in me and encouraged me to complete an honors thesis and run her research studies. She entrusted me with a lot of responsibility and gave me some great training in psychophysiology and clinical research, for which I am so grateful. Working with her made me feel confident that I could develop the skills to be a clinical psychology researcher.

 

Q: What do students in your discipline learn by doing research that they wouldn’t learn by just taking classes?

A: Many times students come in with the perception that psychology is not really a science. I think that if they do research, it becomes very clear how psychology uses the scientific method to generate rigorous studies, just as you would see with “hard sciences” such as chemistry or biology. As researchers, we develop hypotheses, design studies, and carefully analyze our data to understand more about human thoughts, emotions, physiology, and behavior. Designing and executing psychological research isn’t easy either. By participating in this process, students can gain an appreciation for the level of detail, care, and time that goes in to a well-designed project.

 

Q: What do you find to be the most exciting part of doing research or creative work? What makes this line of work meaningful and interesting to you?

A: My favorite thing about my job is that it constantly evolves with each new project. In order to do impactful research, I have to keep up with new findings and incorporate them into my studies, so I am always learning new things. As an intellectually curious person, I get to satisfy my desire to understand how or why things work through my research. Being in clinical psychology, I appreciate that I get to design projects that have the potential to improve people’s mental health. Overall, I like having a career where I get to pose questions about human nature and then find creative ways to answer them.

 

Q: What advice do you have for undergraduates interested in doing research in your field?

A: I would advise undergraduates to think about the skills that they would like to learn and to seek out opportunities to gain experience in these areas. Even if you do not end up pursuing psychology as a career, many of the things that enable you to be successful in psychology research also help you be successful in other career pursuits. This could include skills related to organizing data, paying attention to detail, using statistical software, writing clearly and professionally, critical reading and comprehension, working with participants, managing finances, and public speaking. If you want to learn something, don’t be afraid to ask graduate students, staff, or your faculty advisor for opportunities to gain these skills. Sometimes if you don’t ask, people don’t know that you want to learn!

 

Q: For many students, doing research or a larger creative project is the first time they have done work that routinely involves setbacks and the need to troubleshoot problems. Can you tell us about a time that your research didn’t go as expected? Or about any tricks or habits that you’ve developed to help you stay resilient in the face of obstacles?

A: I try to normalize the fact that often things do not go as we expect them to and that even the best among us constantly have setbacks and experience rejection. Academic research is full of rejection at all stages, whether it is getting papers rejected, grants not funded, or not getting the job you really wanted. I think not taking rejection as a reflection of your skills, abilities, or self-worth is critical to being successful and happy in this career path. Sometimes rejection happens for reasons out of our control, even if we are well qualified or we produced a good product. It is normal to feel disappointed and, at the same time, our value as people is not driven by how many papers we publish or grants we get.
 

Q: How do you spend your time outside of work?

A: I have two dogs (Bea and Genya) and I also usually have a foster dog through the Lawrence Humane Society. This means that a lot of my time is spent catering to their whims, which includes long walks around Clinton Lake and throwing balls in the backyard. Pre-COVID, I liked going to local music shows and sampling food around town and I hope to return to that soon.


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