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Sara Becker

Researcher Spotlight

Dr. Becker is a clinical researcher and licensed clinical psychologist dedicated to improving the quality and utilization of behavioral treatments for individuals with substance use disorders. She has academic affiliations as an Associate Professor (Research) in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the Brown University School of Public Health and in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at The Warren Alpert Medical School.

How long have you been a member of ABCT?

16 years. ABCT was truly my first professional home as a graduate student in clinical psychology.

What tips can you offer to colleagues trying to start a research lab or begin a career in research?

Research is rarely a solo sport, so who you have on your team plays a critical role in your success. Over the years, I have come to rely on several shortcuts when exploring new collaborations. One of my favorites (which I learned when working a consultant who traveled a lot) is the “airport test.” The “airport test” comes at the end of an interview, when you ask yourself, “would I want to be stuck at the airport on a long layover with this person?” Based on my experiences, I suggest using the “airport test” in two ways. First, try to seek out mentors, collaborators, and team members with whom you can see yourself being stuck at the airport. The “airport test” can be used as a helpful litmus test when deciding whether to forge new collaborations, interviewing staff, and weighing service invitations with new colleagues. Second, try to be the type of the colleague others would want to be stranded with. As Emily Bernhardt said in her essay “Being Kind” in Nature, “Everyone here is smart, distinguish yourself by being kind.” For better or worse, you will spend most of your working hours with the members of your research team. The ability to form genuine connections with your team members, not just as researchers, but as people, will do wonders for your productivity and satisfaction. It will also make your career feel a lot less like “work”!

What have you found most rewarding about your research?

My team conducts dissemination and implementation (D&I) science research to improve the utilization of evidence-based interventions for persons with substance use disorders. The most rewarding part of our research is when an organization changes their clinical practice in a way that improves patient care. We are currently conducting a 30-site implementation trial with opioid treatment programs (OTPs) throughout New England. The treatment experience in OTPs can be highly stigmatizing for patients. For instance, patients must come to the OTP daily for monitored medication dosing: if doses are missed, patients risk expulsion from treatment. Our trial is helping OTPs to implement an evidence-based behavioral intervention called contingency management (CM), which rewards patients with positive incentives for meeting treatment goals. As part of our implementation strategy, we ask providers to send us one audio recording per month. Listening to these recordings is incredibly moving, because CM is fundamentally changing how patients experience their care. Patients often cry happy tears during CM sessions and share quotes like, “I just can’t believe it!,” “Things never go my way,” and “I can really feel my luck starting to change.” My team recently consensus-coded an audio recording in which the patient received the largest possible incentive. The patient and provider both started crying, and my entire research team broke into tears. Those moments – when we witness the direct impact of our research on clinical service delivery – are hands down the most fulfilling part of my career.

How do you balance research with the other demands of your position?

Research is my position! I have been 100% grant-funded since 2012. For me, the more relevant question is: “how do you balance service with the demands of your research position?” Because I am fully funded via research, I do not have protected time for activities that I enjoy. like mentoring, reviewing manuscripts and grants, and coordinating national conferences. Carving out time for service has been a major priority for me. I am a standing study section member for the NIH, I recently chaired the Addiction Health Services Research conference, and I serve on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment. I also love mentoring graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and junior faculty. I wish I had a concrete answer as to how I balance these service obligations. It would be nice if I could say that I have a system, blocked off time, or some other replicable strategy. But the truth is, I deeply value service so I make time for it. I have to admit that when my research cup is overflowing, I put in extra hours after my daughters go to bed or during their activities (like in the lobby of a ballet studio) to keep things afloat. I could easily work fewer hours if I cut down on service – but service fills my cup and I prefer to devote extra time to activities that make me feel more fulfilled professionally. My main priority is making certain that work demands do not interfere with family time. I am very protective of my weekends, mornings, and evenings with husband and two daughters (and our new COVID-19 rescue pup!).

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

If I were not a clinical psychologist, I would undoubtedly be in business. Before I started my PhD, I worked for three different companies: Lubin Lawrence (marketing consulting form), Boston Consulting Group (BCG, strategy consulting firm) and Adelphi Values (contract research organization). I enjoyed different aspects of each position and especially my tenure with BCG. As a consultant, I collaborated with leaders of Fortune 100 companies to help them solve business challenges. The job required ongoing problem-solving, communication/persuasion skills, and the ability to adjust to an ever-changing set of contextual circumstances. Several of my projects were with large healthcare organizations, where I observed two recurring themes that continue to inform my research: 1) pharmaceutical companies keenly appreciate the central importance of marketing and start crafting marketing strategies as soon as they have a signal that a treatment might be effective; and 2) large healthcare organizations are difficult to change, and helping such organizations to change requires innovative, multi-level solutions. My D&I research directly builds upon these observations, by applying direct-to-consumer marketing and organizational change strategies. In addition, leading a research team requires me to use many of the same skills I honed in business – problem-solving, communication, and flexibility. Honestly, I often feel like I work in business, because as a soft money researcher, I function as an entrepreneur. I secure my own funding, hire my own teams, and set my teams’ goals. In many ways, I get the best of both worlds. I have the autonomy and intellectual stimulation I had in business while getting to tackle public health issues in a way that is consistent with my personal values.

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