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Meet Anu Asnaani, PhD
Assistant Professor at the University of Utah
Anu Asnaani, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor and licensed psychologist who has established the Treatment Mechanisms, Community Empowerment, and Technology Innovations laboratory (https://psych.utah.edu/research/labs/empower-lab.php) in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, UT. She was previously an Assistant Professor at University of Pennsylvania from 2013-2018 and Associate Director of the Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety from 2017-2018. She completed her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Boston University from 2007-2012, followed by her clinical internship from the Brown Alpert Medical School from 2012-2013. Her research focuses on understanding the underlying mechanisms (e.g., emotion regulation, distress tolerance, cultural values) of effective treatments for fear-based disorders such as anxiety disorders, PTSD, and OCD, and exploring how fear-based disorder symptoms (and other outcomes that matter to our communities) are most effectively improved across a greater diversity of individuals. Her work relies on working in close partnership with collaborators in community and global settings, and utilizes innovations in technology to expand the reach of evidence-based interventions in multiple contexts.
Dr. Asnaani responded to questions from ABCT’s Research Facilitation Committee about her experiences in research.
How long have you been a member of ABCT?
14 years, since when I was a senior in college
What tips can you offer to colleagues trying to start a research lab or begin a career in research?
For those at the stage of starting their own lab after years of training, the first, and most important, thing to think about is what the focus of your lab is going to be, and make it something that you feel passionate about. It doesn’t need to be cutting edge, it doesn’t need to be fancy, and it doesn’t need to impress anyone – you want to decide what your lab will work on based on your own motivation and joy. Otherwise, it won’t last, or will likely make you miserable even if it does!
If you’re just trying to begin a career in research, what worked for me was aligning with a good mentor and team to learn from in the early years (as an undergrad, even!). A mentor can be an actual faculty member, but a mentor can also be one of many others within that team (post-docs, older students, RAs) who teach you the scientific basics of generating a question, testing the question, and interpreting what you find from that exploration. Be open to finding mentorship, guidance and support from a range of people – don’t just rely on that faculty mentor — and practice being a good all-around, non-hierarchical team player, ready to learn from every level of personnel in the lab you first work in. I have seen burgeoning researchers make the mistake of only relying on a busy PI for guidance, or more problematically, devaluing the immense knowledge many others (including your peers) can bring to informing your own career in research.
Has your approach to research changed over the course of your career? If so, how has it changed?
Absolutely. As I started my career, I largely followed research pursuits that fell under the expertise of my mentors at each stage (RA, grad student, internship, first post-grad position), which, don’t get me wrong, is a great way to learn and grow. I am very thankful for having an overarching guide at each stage of my training to help build my basic and advanced research skills in terms of implementing studies, analyzing data, and academic writing related to these projects. However, even from the very beginning of graduate school, I was starting to form a much better idea from these diverse, mentored research experiences around what really held my own interest or piqued my curiosity. As a result, the noticeable change in my approach to research has been a greater and greater emphasis on spending my research time doing work that more directly aligns with my core academic interests and values, with my research work now being near 100% in line with what I really feel intrinsically motivated to do. In addition, I have noticed that an ongoing transition in my approach to research has been a desire to make sure that the scientific discovery work I do directly informs specific implementation, policy, and advocacy efforts in the realm of mental health, and it is something I am training my students to be aware of and get engaged in much earlier in their careers than I did.
What have you found most rewarding about your research?
By far, the most rewarding part of my research has been the immense connection to others, who bring such a wealth of different perspectives, experiences, stories, and skillsets. I refer to this connection not only made to my mentors, colleagues, and students, but also to my patients and community research participants, each of whom I am in awe of given their different contributions to moving the needle forward on our understanding and treatment of mental health symptoms. I am both humbled and energized by these expansive connections, that now span multiple cities across the U.S., and across multiple countries where I am so grateful to have collaborators and individuals with whom I have been able to work to improve mental health delivery and scientific study of fear-based disorders.
What is one challenge about your research that you didn’t anticipate before you started the work, and how have you dealt with this?
A major challenge I continue to contend with is setting limits around research commitments – for many of us, there are so many things that are fascinating and certainly worthy of additional scientific exploration, but as is also the case for all us, regardless of career stage – there is only finite time. I think one thing I didn’t fully grasp in graduate school was how I would be able to scale my research efforts in a post-training position. That is, I always assumed that if I could write out a whole bunch of papers and run a few studies simultaneously as an advanced graduate student, that my capacity to do so would only increase as my career progressed. However, I was not aware of the challenges and time constraints that would be placed (as it is for everyone) as you become more senior in terms of service, administration, mentorship and teaching, and therefore time allotted for each research pursuit needs to take these additional responsibilities into account. Part of how I have managed this challenge is learning to say no to some projects (even if they are so interesting!), committing fully to the ones I have, incorporating time for mentorship, supervision and administrative tasks as the PI when thinking about the load of each project, and really focusing my time and energy on those research pursuits that align most fully with my core research interests (refer back to my mention of the importance of defining this focus when starting your own lab). This approach allows me to deliver on my research projects more effectively, and quite frankly, more happily!