Q&A with Dr. Deborah Levy, Research Psychologist, Genetics of Psychiatric Disorders
Q: What is your current position?
I am the director of the psychology research lab at McLean Hospital and an associate professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Q: What kind of research do you do?
We're primarily interested in the genetics of schizophrenia, and we use both the clinical disorder as well as traits that occur among family members to find risk genes.
Q: How did you get started in this field?
Well it was sort of accidental.
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to go to medical school or to get a Ph.D. I decided to take a year off to see what it was like to be involved in research.
I worked with someone who was studying schizophrenia, and I got hooked on the topic.
Q: What kind of preparation is needed for research psychology?
I do research, and I'm also a clinician. In order to do that particular combination, one needs a PhD in psychology and to complete a clinical internship.
I also did a clinical postdoc at the Menninger Foundation, though not everybody does a clinical postdoc.
For the purposes of the research, it's a good idea to do a research postdoc. It takes a lot of training.
Q: What is an average day in your work like?
I'm writing and reviewing papers and grants. I'm supervising people in the lab, taking care of administrative matters and, then of course, continuing to be involved in the research.
There's not much downtime.
Q: What traits work well in research psychology?
Perseverance, commitment to your ideas, willingness to undergo the riggers of grantsmanship, and thick skin are all necessary. There are a lot of setbacks in addition to victories, so tenacity is really critical.
Q: What are the challenges you face in your work?
Well the key challenge right now is funding.
We have a financial crisis in the country, and it also has an impact on the amount of money available for research.
It's very difficult to sustain an adequate level of funding by relying solely on the National Institute of Health. We are always trying to find money to support the lab and the research.
This is a challenge that every research lab is facing right now. So much of your time is devoted to writing grants that it is difficult to devote most of your energies to the research and to understanding the findings.
Q: What do you see for the future of research psychology?
For my research, I think there are so many new findings in the genetics of psychiatric disorders that this is really a critically important topic to pursue. For the first time we're actually identifying risk genes for schizophrenia, autism, and a range of neurodevelopmental disorders.
Now that we know what some of these mutations are, we can actually try to identify what biological pathways are impacted by these genes, and why the same gene can result in disorders as different as autism and schizophrenia. It's a really exciting time, and I think genetics is, at least for me, at the forefront of research efforts.
Q: What have you learned from your research?
We've learned that there are genetic risk factors for schizophrenia. I think we now have clear evidence that genetic factors play a critical role in the risk for developing this disorder.
The reason that you find some families in which you don't have a family history of schizophrenia, but then somebody becomes ill is because in some cases, you have a spontaneous mutation that's occurred that involves the genetic risk factor.
I think we've underestimated the importance of those kinds of de novo events.
Q: Any other advice for aspiring research psychologists?
Well, I think it's really important to learn as much as you can in graduate school.
Having a good mentor is really critical as well during graduate school and any other kind of training period.
Regardless of where you end up going to school or starting out as a junior investigator, having senior people who take an interest in your career and are willing to help guide you and provide you with feedback, will do a lot to develop you.