SASHLab member and Senior Lecturer in Psychology Dr. Siobhán Howard was recently awarded the international Stress and Anxiety Research Society Early Career Award, at the society's annual meeting in Lublin, Poland. Congratulations, Siobhán! Here we chat to Siobhán about her research career so far, and the next steps in her research.
For people not familiar with the area of cardiovascular reactivity – can you tell us a little bit about it?
The area of cardiovascular reactivity looks at how our blood pressure and heart rate change when we perceive or experience stress. The mere perception of a stressor causes an immediate change in our blood pressure and heart rate, which is easily measured in the laboratory or the field. Think of your activity monitor, like your Fitbit; you can easily measure changes in heart rate when doing exercise (physical stressor) or when you feel tense or stressed (psychological stressor). Years of research has shown us that changes in blood pressure and heart rate when we experience psychological stressors are informative for future health status. If you experience large increases in blood pressure and/or heart rate when you perceive a situation to be stressful, you have a greater likelihood of developing diseases involving the heart (cardiovascular disease). In fact, psychology’s biggest contribution to medicine has arisen from research on cardiovascular reactivity, with stress now known as a risk factor for the development of cardiovascular disease. Research looking at the cardiovascular reactivity is the reason this is the case.
Can you tell us a bit about your career trajectory to date?
I finished my undergraduate degree in the Department of Psychology at NUI Galway in 2003. The most enjoyable part of my degree was my undergraduate dissertation, where I did an experimental study to test the claims that “lavender aromatherapy reduces stress”. I put this to the test by conducting a double-blind, placebo-controlled trial on over 90 undergraduate students, using galvanic skin response as an indicator of stress level. My research found that there was absolutely no support for lavender aromatherapy, and in fact, telling people a smell would impede their relaxation levels, meant they were more likely to relax!
So, in the summer of 2003 when NUI Galway offered me a small fellowship (fee waiver and a small stipend) to do a PhD in psychology, I thought “get paid to stay in college-sounds good to me”. And that was literally the amount of thought I put into doing a PhD that summer. I started the PhD in September 2003 and finished it in 2008. During that time, I worked part-time at weekends in a residential home for teenagers with learning disabilities, and I taught research methods every week in the Department. In fact, at my first interview for a lecturer job, a member of the interview panel pointed out that I had carried a full-time teaching load throughout my entire PhD. But I loved teaching and I look back now and realise just how important that teaching experience was for me.
In 2008, the opportunity to apply for a postdoctoral researcher position in NUI Galway came up. I was just finishing my PhD and thought I would like to travel for a year after. But the project was in my research area; so it was too good an opportunity to miss. I think this was the first actual decision I made with my career in mind. I applied for the job, got it, and completed 3 years of postdoctoral work in the Centre for Research on Occupational and Life Stress at NUI Galway.
In 2011, I got a permanent position as lecturer in psychology at Mary Immaculate College (MIC), and so, moved to Limerick. Here, I built my research programme, publishing from data I had collected in my PhD and postdoc, and I established a cardiovascular reactivity lab at MIC. I presented every year at national and international conferences and I began to establish a number of research networks through these activities. I held three visiting scholar positions during a 6-month sabbatical at MIC; in Tilburg University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and University of Birmingham.
In summer 2017, I got the position of senior lecturer in psychology at UL and started in September 2017.
What are the “real-world” implications of your research?
I think it’s important that we do not fall into the trap of good research and good science needing to have an immediate real-world application that we can sell to the highest bidder. That type of approach can lead to low-quality research, with a potential immediate real-world implication we can sell to the highest bidder (either a funding agency or a private company). So, while it’s important to consider the future implications of our findings, we need to ensure that quality is the biggest driver of our research.
My research looks at a personality type that has been shown to be predictive of negative outcomes when a person has already experienced a cardiac event, like a heart attack. I look at this personality type in healthy individuals and measure how their blood pressure and heart rate change when they experience or perceive stress and how these changes are different to a person without this personality type. By looking at changes in heart rate and blood pressure, we can see what type of situations are more or less stressful for these individuals. This then can tell us, what things to avoid and what things to increase when treating people after they have experienced a cardiac event, particularly if they have this personality type; this is called personalized medicine. By showing what’s good, what’s bad, for this particular subgroup of people, we can tailor interventions to more directly meet their needs. For example, people with this personality type hate social situations and actively try to avoid them. But, when a person experiences a cardiac event, they are asked to attend support groups and rehabilitation groups; all group-based interventions involving social situations. So, this one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best way to treat these people; in fact, my research shows that it may be particularly damaging as they find these social situations stressful.
What advice would you give to early career researchers?
I have two pieces of advice for early career researchers; have integrity and seize opportunities when they arise.
Having integrity is more than conducting ethical research. I think as psychology students, we received excellent training in research ethics. What I mean by integrity is do high quality research that you enjoy, that you are enthusiastic about, and don’t compromise these two things in order to get funding. It’s important to look at grant calls and see can you match your research interests with the objectives of the grant agency. Some flexibility is required; but don’t compromise to the point where, if you got the money, you wouldn’t enjoy doing all those things you said you’d do in order to get the money! Because remember, when you are putting your best foot forward on a grant application, you can get carried away with your ambition and all you will do with the money! But if you get that money, you literally have to put that money where your mouth was, and do everything you said. Try not to learn that one the hard way.
Seizing opportunities is my second piece of advice; but only those opportunities that genuinely enthuse you. Don’t let “imposter syndrome” hold you back; one of the most universal experiences I think PhD students, and indeed, academics at all stages of their careers experience, is imposter syndrome. That feeling that you are going to be “caught out”. Although, of course, this is just anecdotal evidence from me! Everyone feels like they are going to be “caught out” someday, and that people will realise they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. My advice; keep going until you actually do get caught out (which trust me, won’t happen as you absolutely do know what you are talking about).
What are the next steps for you in your research?
I should answer this question with a five-year, 10-point plan, but I honestly do not think like this, nor do I spent a whole lot of time planning my research programme. However, saying that, in the past, when I have reflected on gaps in my programme, I have been very proactive in findings ways to close those gaps. I think starting a new job in the past year, has meant that I have focused on all aspects of academia, and trying to be a valuable colleague in my department. In the next year, I want to continue doing research and writing papers that interest me. I want to work with Stephen and Ann-Marie in building the SASH laboratory research output, mentoring students and early career researchers, and I want to continue to teach well, as well as, research well. Being a well-rounded academic is important to me and my identity.
Thank you Siobhán for sharing your insights with us and congratulations on this latest achievement!