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Katharina Kircanski

Researcher Spotlight

Staff Scientist, National Institute of Mental Health Intramural Research Program (NIMH IRP)

ABCT member since 2007

What is the context in which you work, and what was your path to conducting research in this setting?

I conduct research as a federal employee in the NIMH Intramural Research Program. It is the internal research division of the NIMH – a relatively small but diverse set of groups whose focus ranges from basic neuroscience to clinical trials. Here, I am a Staff Scientist in the Emotion and Development Branch, where we study clinical phenotypes as they emerge during development, particularly mood and anxiety disorders. We also collaborate with extramural labs on projects. My research centers on understanding brain-behavior mechanisms that are common versus specific across different symptom dimensions in youth, in the service of informing targeted interventions. For example, in some of my studies I have examined common versus specific neural correlates of irritability and anxiety symptoms. I came to the NIMH as a postdoctoral fellow with an interest in learning neuroimaging methodologies. I was excited about the opportunities provided here to learn new skills at the postdoctoral level. The group and program as a whole are also highly interdisciplinary, and so we conduct studies that cut across a range of methods and levels of analysis, which has been fruitful in addressing our questions of interest.

What drew you to your particular research questions?

My particular interest is in irritability as a symptom dimension in children and adolescents. Irritability, an increased proneness to anger relative to one’s peers, transects multiple diagnoses and shows especially strong cross-sectional, longitudinal, and genetic associations with unipolar depression and anxiety. Irritability also confers increased risk for suicidality. I have been interested in irritability for a number of reasons – including the aforementioned clinical implications and the fact that it is understudied relative to other symptom dimensions. For this latter reason, working in the area of irritability has been both challenging and exciting. For example, the field does not have an agreed-upon definition of irritability, which makes it difficult to compare results across studies that use different conceptualizations and assessments of the construct, but also exciting in that there are constant opportunities for discussion and debate that will have an impact on the field going forward.

What strategies have helped you be successful in a challenging funding environment?

Although I do not rely on extramural funding currently, as a graduate student and postdoc I took opportunities to write grants, such as an NIMH F31 and F32 and a NARSAD Young Investigator Grant. My previous postdoctoral mentor also encouraged our contributions to writing grants such as NIMH R01s. I think that this repeated practice, obtaining lots of input from mentors and collaborators, and the process of receiving and responding to reviewer feedback in grant revisions helped me to better understand and hone grantsmanship as a skill. In addition, I learned to incorporate multiple methodologies (e.g., behavioral, psychophysiological, neuroimaging) to answer questions more comprehensively and in a way that appeals to a broader scientific audience. I also remember one of my mentors telling me in this context that “people who succeed more also fail more,” i.e., people who are more successful in receiving grants also have a lot of grant submissions that are not funded. Keeping that in mind can be very helpful and motivating in terms of trying again when a grant submission is not successful.

What does an average day or week look like for you?

My typical day or week involves multiple roles and activities – working on data, writing or editing manuscripts, mentoring postbaccalaureate students and postdoctoral fellows on research projects, conducting and supervising clinical assessments and cognitive-behavioral interventions with our patients, and carrying out administrative aspects of the group. I enjoy the diversity of activities, although with it has come a steep learning curve of how to balance them and complete everything efficiently. One of the strategies that I have found useful is to confine meetings to certain days of the week, so that I can focus on data work and writing in larger blocks of time on other days. I also tend to place meetings back-to-back, which involves quite a bit of set-shifting but again allows for larger blocks of open time. Different strategies work for different people, of course, but it is critical to be deliberate about balance and trying to control what you can in your schedule in a way that works best for you.

If you weren’t pursuing a career in psychology, what would you be doing?

Probably something completely different. I love studio art and almost pursued an undergraduate degree in architecture before deciding to take a liberal arts route. And while I do not have a lot of spare time these days, I do still make time for drawing and painting when possible. Like others, I think it is important to have some interest or pursuit outside of psychology or one’s chosen career and to spend time on that – for its own intrinsic sense of satisfaction or fulfillment and also as a way to refocus attention when a setback in work might occur.