Texas A&M University
What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on improving the assessment of clinical disorders (personality disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, anxiety, etc.) in older adults. This topic is timely because many of these disorders are not measured well in older adults. Further, these disorders play important roles in health outcomes, affecting not only older adults but also their families and the health care system. I focus much of my research on improving assessment instruments more generally because many of the current instruments and techniques have fundamental problems that are relevant to adults of all ages (not just older adults). A significant focus of this research is on the measurement of dementia. The goal here is to hasten the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a critical step in managing the disease. My most recent studies are aimed at improving the detection of change in clinical trials of Alzheimer’s disease medications.
What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I was fortunate to attend an undergraduate institution that offered a minor in gerontology. It was during this time that I became interested in working with older adults. Just taking a couple of classes made me realize how much there was to be gained theoretically and clinically by studying this demographic.
Who were/are your mentors or psychological influences?
I owe large debts of gratitude to many people in this field. Tom Oltmanns, Martha Storandt, and Brian Carpenter took a chance on me as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis. Nothing would have been possible without their support and guidance. Les Morey and the psychology faculty at Texas A&M decided to hire me, even though I hadn’t yet completed graduate school. If Les hadn’t supported my hire, I never would have had a platform to pursue my ideas. Tom Widiger, University of Kentucky, has been instrumental also. He has served as a reviewer and/or action editor on several key manuscripts. Tom saw value in my research and took time and energy to help me refine my thinking throughout the review process. Dan Segal, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, a pioneer of research on personality disorders in older adults, has been generous with his time and ideas. Over the last several years, he has become a close colleague and friend, and has made this work fun. Rachelle Doody, Baylor College of Medicine, has shepherded my ideas in dementia medical research. Her efforts have been enormously helpful. Finally, Luke Cooper and Tyler Miller, my graduate students, have been great sounding boards and critical thinkers; they also have helped move these ideas forward.
To what do you attribute your success in the science?
My success has largely been defined by the people listed above and the opportunities they have created for me.
What’s your future research agenda?
Almost all of my future work will focus on the assessment of Alzheimer’s disease. Without giving too much away, I’ll simply share that I think it’ll be the most important work I do.
Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
Show up! I think that it was Woody Allen who said 90 percent of life is showing up. The spirit behind his statement is true. The more you show up and work hard, the more you are likely to be rewarded. That may seem obvious, but people sometimes don’t recognize the importance of showing up. I have seen people of enormous ability ruin their careers because they were unwilling or unable to bring their “A-game” to work each and every day. At the same time, I’ve seen people of slightly lesser ability work hard and have opportunities opened up for them because they were sitting at their desk when their boss needed a hand or had an opportunity. This, of course, is not a new idea. I am cribbing a bit from several people here (see Matthews, 2002), but I think it’s really good advice.
What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
Oltmanns, T. F., & Balsis, S. (2011). Personality disorders in later life: Questions about the measurement, course, and impact of disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 7, 321-349.
Tom Oltmanns and I wrote a paper that will be published soon in Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. This paper seeks to transform the approach of studying personality disorders in older adults from a niche business to one that is fundamental to our pursuit of understanding personality disorders. In a way, this article opens up opportunities to see the study of other clinical disorders in older adults through a similar lens — fundamental to our most basic understandings of these constructs.