Given this year's conference theme Cognitive Behavioral Science, Treatment, and Technology, we are excited to present for this inaugural feature a researcher who has spent his career evaluating and promoting technology-based enhancements for mental health. As former Scientific Director of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies at Northwestern University and current Clinical Director at Pear Therapeutics, Dr. Ken Weingardt's work highlights a commitment to using novel paradigms to advance clinical science. His presentation at last year's Research Facilitation sponsored symposium, "The Virtual Research Lab", detailed his experience conducting clinical trials entirely online, including recruitment, consent, treatment delivery, and assessment.
In his role as the Clinical Director at Pear Therapeutics, Dr. Weingardt leads the development of evidence-based content of technology to promote health. Since receiving his doctorate in clinical psychology in 1999 from the University of Washington, he has been actively involved in projects to develop and promote technologies to enhance behavioral change and mental health, both in the world of academia and in the private sector. He has consulted about technology-based enhancements for behavior change and training programs for the Department of Veterans Affairs, private technology companies, the National Institutes of Health, and in positions at Stanford University and Northwestern University. Across multiple settings and through various research experiences, he has demonstrated a commitment to using technology to facilitate behavior change and therefore improve health outcomes.
Dr. Weingardt responded to questions from ABCT's Research Facilitation Committee about his experiences in research.
How long have you been a member of ABCT?
What tips can you offer to colleagues trying to start a research lab or begin a career in research?
- Find a good mentor. You can't underestimate how helpful it is to collaborate with a successful, more senior colleague. They know the ins and outs of getting grants funded and papers published - which is really what you need to get your research career off the ground.
- Get a career development award. Either K-awards through NIH or AHRQ or Career Development Awards in VA is an excellent way to securing funding while you write papers and pursue other grants. They also a mechanism for putting together a strong mentorship plan - see point above.
What strategies have helped you be successful in a challenging funding environment?
- Consider applying for an SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research, R-34) grant through NIH. At my last position, we were able to spin off a small business and raise $1.5M through this mechanism.
- Consider industry partnership. This is a particularly good strategy if you're interested in technology and digital health, where there has been a huge inflow of new investment. You can contact your University Technology Transfer office to learn about how they can assist with commercializing new products.
What is an example of a set-back you've experienced in your position, and how did you handle it?
I became frustrated by the slow pace of academic research, and having to find grant support for 100% of my time. I also grew tired of trying to develop ambitious new technologies within the budgetary constraints of NIH research grants. There never seemed to be enough resources to develop products in an agile, iterative, and user-centered fashion.
What was your experience in transitioning from academia to the private sector?
It has been an interesting transition moving from my faculty position into an industry job. The contexts could not be more different. The wheels of academia grind slowly, while start-ups move very quickly. In academic research, everything falls on the shoulders of the PI, who is responsible for all aspects of a study from planning and budgeting through data analysis and publication. In the technology industry, you are typically part of a cross-functional team with professionals from a variety of different backgrounds (e.g. clinical operations, design, product management, engineering, data science), who are collectively responsible for the project's success. The available resources are vastly different, with companies having the flexibility to budget for additional resources as needed.
How has your approach to research changed over the course of your career?
The theme of my career has been to become increasingly applied in my focus. I started out in a Cognitive Psychology lab doing reaction time experiments. After I moved into clinical, my research focus shifted to program evaluation, looking at real world outcomes of publicly funded SUD treatment programs. I then spent some time doing research focused on the implementation of evidence-based interventions into clinical practice, and served in a national leadership role at VA where I had the opportunity to roll out new technologies to support Veteran mental health. I see my industry job as a culmination of this trend toward.
What does an average day or week look like for you?
My two main foci are product design and research. On the product side, I have daily bi- weekly working sessions with our senior designer and product manager to take our clinical content and create wireframes, storyboards and prototypes. On the research side, I'm responsible for designing the studies that we use to evaluate our designs and products. I spend a fair amount of time working with our business partners to get consensus on study design and protocols. I then work with our clinical operations team to conduct the study, and with the data science team to gather insights from all of these activities.