SASSC The Expert Interview
February 4, 2016

Today’s Expert:
Heather Urry
Tufts University

Interview by:
Lameese Eldesouky
Washington University in St. Louis

Eldesouky: Thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to do this interview.

Urry: No problem! So what do you have for me?

Eldesouky: To start off, I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about your research and what you do right now.

Urry: We have a number of lines of research. But I guess I’ll say first that the thing I’m most interested in and most conceptually tied to right now is work we’re doing within a framework that I worked on with James Gross.  I developed this framework – oh gosh like five years ago now! – and we’re doing the empirical work to test some of the theoretical ideas that we had. The framework is called Selection Optimization and Compensation with Emotion Regulation (SOC-ER). The starting point for that framework was the intuition that some people are pretty good at regulating their emotions using a variety of different kinds of strategies. Other people have difficulties for reasons that I think are interesting. And even people who are good at regulating their emotions aren’t always so good, so one’s facility can vary from one time point to the next.

I just found this phenomenon really interesting, and I was really starting to think about it in the context of older adults.  There’s some evidence that older adults have some difficulties with some forms of emotion regulation, but they might actually be better at other forms. Now why is that? The framework eventually proposed the idea that perhaps what’s going on is that across people and across time there are different resources that we have available to us, and the resources that we have should impact the choices that we make in terms of how we choose to regulate our emotions and also how successful we will be. And you know, humans are amazingly adaptable. I mean I guess a bunch of species are, but certainly humans are. For example, even when we might think that a resource is compromised – for example, we think we’ve exhausted resources for reappraisal – that’s not necessarily the case because as adaptable beings we can compensate when we know that our resources are flagging. We adapt different strategies that might still preserve our ability to regulate how we’re feeling. So that is the one area that I find most interesting right now from a conceptual standpoint. And everything I think that I do is tied to that theme of emotion regulation, which maybe you already know, but that’s certainly true. It’s where my heart lies.

And the other line of research that I pulled into that goal seeks to explore individual differences that might relate to clinical outcomes. So we’re doing some work to try to figure out to what extent emotion regulation processes might help us explain why people who have a history of psychopathology might not always be so terrific at regulating their emotions. However, that’s not necessarily always the case. Of course that goes back to the SOC-ER idea, but to the extent that it is compromised, we’re interested in figuring out why.

The third thing I thought I would highlight is something that I’m kind of excited about. Within the last year, Tufts has developed a Center for Applied Brain and Cognitive Sciences, and I’m one of the people who’s involved in the center.  The center is funded by a partnership with the Natick Solider Center, which is near where I live in the Boston area. And the whole goal of the center is to really foster cutting-edge research that would help us understand better how people work well in teams and how they function in high stakes environments.  Well you can imagine that the high stakes environments of interest would be people like soldiers operating in a battle context, but that’s not the sole focus of the army’s goal for the center.  In the case more broadly, we think of high stakes environments as those reflecting any kind of environment where everyday people have a job that would put them at risk.  For example, first responders to disasters, police officers, all of those represent high stakes environments.  We should understand better how can we facilitate people continuing to be able to perform whatever it is they’re doing in that environment despite the fact that they’re probably scared – really scared. And you know, for good reasons. I mean there’s all kinds of ways that emotion fits into those environments, so I’m really interested in a grant that would help us to tease apart some of the ways in which emotion regulation strategies might facilitate cognitive performance in those kinds of contexts. That was a very long answer to your question. But does that give you a snapshot?

Eldesouky: No, it was great! I feel like it actually touched upon other questions I was going to ask, so it was perfect. I actually have two questions that are rooted in what you said. First I was wondering about the conceptual framework that you mentioned: how much time do you think graduate students should be spending on doing empirical studies versus trying to develop a theory, or a framework?

Urry: That’s a great question. I guess it will vary a little bit depending on the person. But if I set aside the intense desire to always qualify everything, I would say I think in graduate school it’s probably better to focus on the empirical side. But you should also have a conceptual way of thinking about the way the world works and why you should be generating the hypotheses to be tested. So I guess the bottom line is sort of both, but just from a practical standpoint, I would say in graduate school students should focus more on mastering what it takes to do really good empirical science and to get that published. And in the course of things also develop that theoretical acumen. Then again I am cautious here because I don’t want to imply that I wouldn’t encourage graduate students to work on a paper.  I think that’s potentially really interesting and again, that’s where it depends. Imagine a student who’s already done a fair amount of work, I think that positions you nicely to go in that direction. But that would be my way of thinking about it. I’d be curious how other people answer that question. I’ll read all the interviews you do and find out.

Eldesouky: The questions actually vary a little bit from interview to interview, so I don’t know if somebody else has asked this question. But I felt like it might be a good one, leaping off of what you said.

Urry: Yeah, it’s a really good question. I remember in graduate school asking, “how should I be spending my time?” So to be thinking about that proactively is very sensible.

Eldesouky: Right. And then my second question is regarding the center that you mentioned. So I imagine that you probably work with a lot of people who aren’t necessarily psychologists or come from the same scientific background as you. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about what that experience is like, especially for people who might be interested in getting involved with interdisciplinary collaborations.

Urry: Well, it’s tremendous. I actually do work with a fair number of psychologists in that center. So it’s not that I’m only having interdisciplinary experiences, but I’m certainly having those. The center is constructed in such a way that the leadership-I don’t know if that’s the right word for it-but the people who are making it happen have different disciplines. One of them is a computer scientist who discusses how to think about the center and what directions we want to take in terms of funding. It’s really terrific to hear from somebody who thinks differently. Although they also think in related ways, right-because we’re all interested in a similar sort of focus. Regardless, it’s really fantastic to have my eyes opened to a different way of thinking about the various issues. I don’t know if I fully answered that. I think there’s another piece to it. Maybe you’ll help cue me to get back on track if I haven’t fully answered the question yet.

Eldesouky: No, I think that was a good answer about people thinking about things differently and bringing different ideas to the table. I guess I was wondering in terms of applied and basic research, if you could tell me a bit about where your research stands. Do you feel it’s primarily basic, or is it applied?

Urry: I would say that everything that we’ve done that’s published so far I would put more under the basic side of the coin. That being a said, a bunch of the work that’s published you can also see that it’s motivated by the potential for its applicability, in clinical contexts or in the federal-related stuff in helping people perform optimally in environments that might not otherwise facilitate that kind of outcome. So I definitely think of myself more as a basic scientist. But yeah you can hear that I have an interest in doing research that could have some applicability down the road. And actually we are moving somewhat in that direction ourselves already. Evidence of it is not in work that’s been published so far.  One example of that would be – so let me just pause and ask you a question – are you familiar at all with the work that Jamie Pennebaker has done within the context of written disclosure and how expressive writing can have psychological and physical health benefits?  You’re sort of generally aware of that work?

Eldesouky: Yeah, I am.

Urry: Okay, and then there’s the gazillion studies on that topic. This is an area of research that we’ve recently delved in thinking that maybe we could actually apply some of what we and others have learned about reappraisal to then amp up the benefits of the expressive writing.  We’ve been testing this out in a couple of studies. So there’s an example whereby basic research links up with what I would call in many cases, more clinically-oriented sort of applied work on the benefits of expressive writing.  Pulling them together could maybe have some benefits for other people, and the benefits so far seem to be people reporting feeling better and having lower levels of depressive symptoms following our expressive writing routine over the course of several days.  It actually encourages them to rethink a stressful event that happened to them. So there’s an example where it’s kind of a mix. I would still say for the majority that I’m on the basic side of the coin. But it is a coin, right? That’s the cool thing.

Eldesouky: That’s really fascinating! Actually bringing this back to my earlier question about whether graduate students should focus on the conceptual part or empirical studies, how much time or if any time, do you think graduate students should spend on doing applied research? I know sometimes there’s a little bit of frustration with doing work and not directly being able to see how it’s relevant, even though you know it’s really important. Being able to see that translational piece takes quite a bit of time and some people just want to leap into it right away.

Urry: Gosh, I don’t know if I’ve actually given that question thought, although it’s a really good question. I think in part because most of the graduate students I’ve been working with have sort of tackled basic questions. I don’t know –that’s interesting. I’ll have to ask them. That’s a really great question, Lameese. I mean maybe they’re also itching to get to some more applied stuff and just we haven’t discussed it as it would sort of come up, so I would certainly love to raise that. I guess in hearing you say that, I’m coming around to the answer of the question, which is, I guess I haven’t really had the opportunity to try to reign somebody in doing more applied work. Though I’m not sure that it’s necessary to reign somebody in. But I do again think it depends on where a particular graduate student thinks they might be heading.

So for example, somebody who has career interests that are academic in nature and has dreams of doing research at an R1 institution and teaching and service and all the stuff that goes with it-then in many departments there’d be higher value placed on basic research in which case there would be good reason to focus on that domain. But that’s of course not universal. There would be some R1 institutions and departments that would really value an applied focus, so if you know that’s the direction you’re taking, I guess that would be the sign to me as an advisor to encourage you to go that route. Part of the challenge is, and I don’t know if it’s actually true, or if it’s just my schema for thinking about applied studies is that they can be more difficult to do and time-consuming if they involve special populations or extended treatments. There may be many ways in which it could be more complex and that’s perhaps difficult to accomplish within a reasonable timeline that you’d hope for a graduate student to experience. So you can go off and finish, get a job, whatever kind of job you want. But that may very well be worth it, for example, for someone who’s in a clinical program or a counseling program and who knows when they finish, they’d really like to focus more on a career in practice then doing applied research would perhaps make really good sense.

Eldesouky: Right. So basically it seems like a lot of it depends on what an individual person’s goals might be for the future.

Urry: Yeah, it does seem like that would be really important to take into account, so I hesitate to make any global recommendations. Do you do applied work or how do you think about these issues in your own research?

Eldesouky: I don’t do applied work. I’m in the Social/Personality area and I feel like I’m doing a lot of the conceptual stuff. I don’t know if I want to do applied work per se, but I wish that I was able to see my research be applied, whether it’s me directly applying it or someone else applying it. I just feel like it’s a slow process going from what I’m doing now to seeing how it helps with like therapies, for instance, because I also do research on emotion regulation.

Urry: Yeah, right. I hear you. I mean even for me to think about doing applied work what I mean is that it might not have been discovered until the basic research was done. So for me, applied doesn’t necessarily mean I’m now going to take it on. I certainly might if we got far enough down the road in discovering that this reappraisal writing intervention is really useful. We might eventually get to that point where we would still do it. I wouldn’t be giving up my job at the Psychology Department at Tufts and sort of establishing myself as a person who uses that method, right? But it would still be in the realm of applied research.

Eldesouky: Yes, thank you. So I guess we have time for one last question. I was wondering if you had any other general advice for graduate students who are interested in pursuing a career in affective science.

Urry: Well, I have lots of advice! I actually have pieces of advice that apply to many disciplines and certainly affective science. And one of them goes back to something that you already asked me about, which is in thinking about the interdisciplinary nature of studying affect. I would encourage students to really explore any possibility for collaboration. And expose yourself to working with people who think about affect in different ways. I’m involved because I think one of the very nice features of this society is it’s trying, as best as we can, to bring in people who have different disciplinary perspectives. So that’s my best advice is to seek opportunities to have interdisciplinary experience.

And another piece of advice – now this one I don’t think is specific to affective science, I think this is specific to science. I’m going to recommend that graduate students in whatever discipline they’re studying, whether it’s a scientific discipline, that they spend a lot of time writing. Write. Write. Write. Write everyday. Write. And don’t worry everyday about whether you’re writing something perfect. Just do it. Because it’s a habit that is a lot less painful and a lot more fun when you do it a lot and you can see something move from an idea to having your name in lights on the byline of an article in a journal that you respect. So that would be my advice for any kind of scientist. What would your advice be?

Eldesouky: My advice? Well, I’m only in my third year so I feel like I have quite a bit of time. I think along the lines of writing, dividing up your time to do different parts of research and not spending so much time on one thing. I mean per day for instance. I like to divide it up so that I spend a couple of hours writing, a couple of hours designing studies. I feel like it keeps me excited as opposed to just sitting down and just doing one part of the research all day. It just kind of helps me see how it all comes together and reminds me why I got into this field in the first place.

Urry: That’s really great! I think I’ve actually rediscovered the benefits of that, too. So it’s nice to hear it echoed from somebody else.

Eldesouky: Well, thank you so much, again.

Urry: No problem! It was really nice to chat with you.