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Shannon Sauer-Zavala


Spotlight on a Researcher

Dr. Sauer-Zavala is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky (UK) and is the founding Director of Clinical Services at the UK Clinic for Emotional Health. Dr. Sauer-Zavala received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology from UK in 2011; she completed her predoctoral internship at Duke University Medical Center and her postdoctoral fellowship at Boston University. She then spent seven years on the faculty in BU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Science before returning to UK in 2019.

Her research is focused on exploring emotion-focused mechanisms that maintain psychological symptoms and using this information to develop more targeted, easily disseminated intervention strategies. Her research has been supported by NIMH, NIAAA, Templeton Foundation, the Center for Implementation and Improvement Sciences, and the Canadian Institute of Health Research. She has been a member of ABCT for 16 years. Dr. Sauer-Zavala has co-authored over 110 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and books. In particular, she is a co-developer of the Unified Protocol and is currently developing and testing a novel treatment for borderline personality disorder – BPD Compass.

Has your approach to research changed over the course of your career? If so, how has it changed?

 Yes! And I think that’s what keeps my work fresh and exciting (at least to me). In graduate school, my research was focused on identifying psychopathological mechanisms that maintained borderline personality disorder – particularly deficits in mindfulness as that was my mentor’s (Ruth Baer) area. My projects were a mix of survey research and laboratory studies. During my postdoctoral fellowship, I served as a study therapist on a large trial evaluating the Unified Protocol and learned tons about treatment development and efficacy research from my mentor, Dave Barlow.

After I got down the nuts and bolts of efficacy research, I began to question the generalizability of our findings (Who participates in research trials? Who provides the therapy in research settings?). Although my research is still under the efficacy umbrella (with some dabbling in effectiveness and implementation hybrid designs), I seek to get feedback from clinicians in routine practice and from patients themselves during the treatment development process so interventions are deployment-ready from the start. All of this is to say that interests evolves and it’s never too late to try something new!


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

Be nice and don’t reinvent the wheel! I would estimate that 75% of my success in research is due to my ability (and enjoyment) in forming relationships. Research is a team sport, and everyone contributes, from the folks who process participant payments at your institution to your colleagues who help you develop your ideas. Take time when you start at a new institution to get to know how it functions. It’s okay to ask for help from more senior colleagues (like early career researchers that aren’t quite as early as you) – they are likely to have IRB templates, payment procedures, a list of internal funding mechanisms, etc., to share with you. Also, be kind to your trainees. It is worth it to invest time in mentoring. Aside from being intrinsically fulfilling, good mentoring gives trainees the sense that they are part of an equitable group and are more likely to want to contribute to team projects.


What have you found most rewarding about your research?

Hands down, I love that treatment outcome trials allow me to give away free, high-quality CBT to patients who wouldn’t ordinarily have access. Kentucky is a particularly rural state and many counties do not have access to adequate mental health services. Thus, the silver lining to the pandemic was that telehealth study sessions allowed more people to receive evidence-based care at no cost. We have been soliciting qualitative feedback from participants and I love reading patient comments about my students and myself. They are really grateful to have received treatment with us.


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

I like to think I would be writing best-selling fiction. Writing has always been my favorite part of the job and, when I was applying to Clinical Psychology PhD programs, I was also applying to MFAs in Creative Writing. Who knows, maybe someday I will write the next great American novel.