A Week in the Life of a Postdoctoral Fellow at the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders…

Often, when I tell people I’m a postdoctoral fellow with the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at UNC, I get a confused look. Most are not familiar with the job title of a ‘postdoctoral fellow’ and have no clue what this job would entail. This question inspired me to write this post. First, to answer the question what exactly a postdoctoral fellow does, and second, to describe all the different activities that are happening here within the eating disorders program.

The UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders has had a NIH training fellowship grant funded for six continuous years, under the direction of Dr. Cynthia Bulik. This training fellowship funds postdoctoral fellows for two years to obtain intensive research training in eating disorders. This training grant was the first funded research training fellowship in eating disorders in the United States. So what exactly does a postdoctoral fellow do? Well, since this is an intensive research training program, a majority of our time is spent conducting research. However, as many of the postdoctoral fellows have been clinicians, we spend some of our time doing clinical work. The best way to describe the life of a postdoctoral fellow is to share a typical week’s schedule. Below, I discuss all the different activities that I am involved with during a sample week!

One of my main duties as a postdoctoral fellow is to coordinate the “Genetics of Anorexia Nervosa (GCAN)” study (http://www.med.unc.edu/psych/eatingdisorders/research%20eating%20disorders/anorexia-studies/gcan). This study is a Wellcome Trust funded grant to conduct a genomewide association on over 4000 DNA samples from individuals with a lifetime history of anorexia nervosa. This project involves collaborations with over 16 countries. My duties as a project coordinator mostly include participant recruitment and assessments. We are currently recruiting individuals seeking treatment within our program and community members who have a current or past history of anorexia nervosa.

Another one of my main duties is to conduct assessments for our clinical research studies, which currently includes CBT4BN (http://www.med.unc.edu/psych/eatingdisorders/research%20eating%20disorders/bulimia-studies) and UCAN (http://www.med.unc.edu/psych/eatingdisorders/research%20eating%20disorders/anorexia-studies/ucan-uniting-couples-in-the-treatment-of-anorexia-nervosa). CBT4BN is a comparison for face-to-face and Internet-based cognitive behavior therapy for bulimia nervosa. UCAN is a treatment for anorexia nervosa and examines two comprehensive treatments integrating couples therapy into treatment. The assessments for these clinical research studies include baseline assessments, which assess whether an individual is eligible for the study, as well as follow-up assessments to assess changes in eating disorder symptoms after treatment.

A large proportion of my time is spent conducting my own research. Within the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, there are ample opportunities to get involved with research. For us research geeks, it’s like being a kid in a candy store! For example, I have worked with the Swedish Twin Registry exploring the genetic overlap between bulimia nervosa and an alcohol use disorder, and the Swedish Twin Study of Child and Adolescent development exploring the genetic overlap between age at menarche and eating disorder symptoms (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23084171) as well as the risk for eating disorder symptoms during puberty in boys and girls (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22522282). I’m currently working on four projects that take up most of my research time during any given week. First, I’m exploring the heritability of muscle and height dissatisfaction in adolescent boys and the associations between this dissatisfaction and externalizing behaviors. Second, I’m collaborating with Dr. Cristin Runfola, another postdoctoral fellow, on a review paper of the presentation of eating disorders in men. Third, I’m examining the association between eating disorder symptoms in women during midlife and reproductive hormones. Finally, I’m collaborating with Dr. Kim Brownley and exploring the association between appetite hormones during pregnancy and the development of postpartum depression.

Finally, because I am a clinical psychologist, I spend a few hours a week involved with our clinical program. I currently conduct outpatient therapy with individuals with an eating disorder and co-lead a group on our partial hospitalization program. In the past, I’ve also conducted individual therapy on our inpatient and partial program and co-led outpatient therapy groups.

In sum, I’d have to say being a postdoctoral fellow with the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders and getting to work with Dr. Bulik has provided with me so many amazing opportunities that will surely guide me in my future endeavors as a researcher and a clinician. One of the major perks of being a postdoctoral fellow is the flexibility in the activities in which you can be involved, and the major perk of being a postdoctoral fellow here is the massive amount of activities that are available!

By: Dr. Jessica Baker