As a developmental psychopathologist, Professor Sally Powers makes it her business to understand why depression develops. As director of the Center for Research on Families, she is a staunch promoter of collaborative exchange among faculty across the curriculum and advocate of their research productivity. And as a teacher, Powers is devoted to exposing students to most current theories and knowledge in the classroom and the laboratory.
“Research, teaching and administration are collaborative endeavors,” says Powers. In fact, she came to UMass Amherst in 1988, leaving behind the directorship of Family Research at the Laboratory of Developmental Psychology and Psychopathology, McLean Hospital, Harvard Medical School, “because I wanted to house my research in an academic rather than in a medical school—and because I wanted to mentor students.” She also was eager to expand her ideas “across divisional disciplines” and found colleagues who were eager to oblige.
Fast forward nearly twenty years and it’s safe to say that Powers’ wishes have been granted. She advises graduate students in the clinical psychology program, supervises undergraduate research and honors theses, and has taught psychopathology for many years, a core course in the clinical psychology graduate program. “Research in this area is extremely broad,” Powers explains. “It covers genetics, endocrinology, neuropsychology, social psychology, personality psychology, cognitive psychology, epidemiology and developmental psychology. Knowledge and theories change rapidly, so it is critical to keep current.” This year Powers, with UnJa Hayes of the neuroscience division, has started teaching a “translational research” course that helps transition theories, methods and findings between animal models and human models, from the laboratory into a clinical scenario.
Powers’ research has been focused on how adolescents and their parents solve interpersonal conflicts and how these behaviors are related to the emergence of adolescent depression. “Teens provide a particularly important window for studying the onset of depression because of its strikingly high prevalence and dramatic gender differences, with females outpacing males two to one. For most of my career, I have focused on understanding how individual differences in social cognition and social behavior in family relationships may contribute to the emergence of depression during adolescence. I’ve used multiple assessment methods and longitudinal designs. My latest work incorporates analyses of hormones into behavioral and cognitive models. By understanding which coping strategies work well and how poor coping relates to physiological stress, I hope to inform other researchers, parents and mental health professionals about preventing depression.” The National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Mental Health have supported Powers’ research with generous funding, and her findings have been extensively published.
Since 2003 Powers has been director of the Center for Research on Families that supports UMass Amherst faculty in the conduct and dissemination of research on issues relevant to families. “Family research at CRF,” says Powers, “is defined broadly and includes analyses of individual health and development within families, the social context of families, the intersection of family life with other social institutions, and social and economic policies that affect families in numerous ways.”
As the administrator of CRF, she has been immersed in developing its business plan and organizational structure, establishing CRF programs, obtaining a physical “home,” and fundraising to support the Tay Gavin Lecture Series and undergraduate and graduate research assistantships. Annually Powers, with Assistant Director, Wendy Varner, leads a seminar for up to six family research scholars to help them conceptualize, write and submit major research grant proposals. Over a million dollars have been awarded to CRF scholars since the program’s inception three years ago. The Family Research Scholars program recently expanded beyond the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences to include faculty from Nursing, Public Health, as well as the Smith School of Social Work.
CRF is also receiving national kudos for its Methodology Program, directed by Aline Sayer. In its third year, it offers consultation and training in advanced statistical and methodological techniques relevant to family research through workshops, summer institutes, and national conferences. The Center is continuing to grow and develop in response to faculty and student interest in building support for family research. Powers is particularly excited by CRF’s collaboration with the Psychology Department’s newly endowed Rudd Family Foundation Chair, who will be building a high-profile research program and lecture series to advance the study of adoption. For more information about CRF, see www.umass.edu/family.
While Powers credits “generous and inspiring mentors, colleagues and students” to her stunning successes, personal passion clearly is a major force. "I love the work I do. Understanding the origins of depression is a tremendous motivator. Research on depression ultimately will make a huge impact on adolescents and their families. While research and teaching demand a persistent focus on many areas of expertise, they invigorate me. Directing an interdisciplinary center, too, allows me to be involved in and supportive of a much wider array of research issues that impact families. Like the students I work with at UMass Amherst, the scholars affiliated with CRF are truly inspiring."
March 27, 2007