BY: Tosha Smith, PhD
DATE: 15 November 2017
At the UNC Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED), our mission is to provide hope and healing for those with all eating disorders through science and evidence-based treatment. To accomplish this mission, we have a large staff of clinicians, researchers, and many who do both clinical work and research. This is the fourth of the “Meet the Team” series that we’ll be conducting throughout 2017 to introduce you to a few of the hardworking staff and faculty who help achieve CEED’s mission.
Next up in our “Meet the Team” series is Rachel Guerra. I recently sat down with Rachel to ask her current role at CEED and what advice she has for those who may want to work in the field of eating disorders.
Rachel attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Psychology and graduating in 2015. Rachel joined CEED as an undergraduate volunteer/trainee in 2013 and became a full-time research assistant in 2015.
- What is your current role at CEED and what do you like about it?
I’m currently a social/clinical research assistant here at CEED.
What I love about my job is that I get to work on many exciting projects investigating eating disorders (EDs) from every angle. In the field of psychology, we understand that mental health is not something that is either determined by one’s environment and upbringing (“nurture”) or their genetics (“nature”); it’s both nature and nurture, so it is essential that we continue to research both sides. With a better understanding of the biological basis of EDs, we may be able to better support individuals who are more susceptible to developing an ED—early intervention could potentially prevent the development of an eating disorder. It may also inform the pharmacological approach to the treatment of EDs and help psychiatrists better target the root causes of symptoms in ED patients. The aims of our clinical research are similar: to better understand the psychological basis of EDs and to determine which types of interventions/treatments to which our patients respond best. These two approaches complement each other well and together can bring us closer to finding a cure for these debilitating illnesses which account for a death every single hour.
My tasks include performing clinical assessments, working on data collection and data management, and research participant recruitment, plus I get to work with nearly all of CEED’s faculty members. There’s never a dull moment and I am constantly learning new things. One of my newest roles is as the Dissemination Research Assistant for the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC).
- When did you first decide to work in eating disorders research?
EDs are very personal for me. I struggled with bulimia nervosa (BN) for many years and have supported many of my closest friends through their own battles with EDs. My experiences opened my eyes to both the complexity of EDs and the numerous barriers to treatment. One of the things that motivated me during treatment and continues to motivate me in recovery is the knowledge that there is so much work yet to be done in this field.
In an attempt to better understand my own ED, I discovered the work of Dr. Bulik’s team here at CEED and was so encouraged to learn that others care about this issue and progress is being made. I downloaded the undergraduate trainee application immediately, 2 years before graduating high school and moving from Arkansas to Chapel Hill.
I am still passionate about my work at CEED because we must continue to combat stigma against mental illness and societal pressures to look a certain way. We must continue to advocate for change and pave the way for individuals with EDs to easily access affordable, comprehensive evidence-based treatment.
- What is your favorite thing about working in an eating disorders research lab?
I find it very exciting to be one of the first to know about new ideas and findings in ED research.
- What is the most challenging thing about working in an eating disorders lab?
As I said earlier, EDs are personal to me and sometimes this work can feel too personal. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen very often—in part because I am surrounded by a supportive team in a workplace that encourages self-care and work/life balance.
- What advice do you have for people who may want to work in eating disorders research?
Begin your research now! Reading ED papers in scientific journals can help you narrow down your research interests and point you toward specific institutions or researchers with whom you may want to work. Also, don’t be afraid to talk to people in the field. ED researchers come from many different backgrounds, both personal and academic, so it’s not hard to find a great mentor.
Thanks to Ms. Guerra for sharing her story and advice!