I have been involved in a variety of research projects since I moved to New York. As a clinical research assistant in a homeless and housing study, I was introduced to issues most salient in understanding highly-marginalized populations. I understood the importance of retaining subjects over time to increase a project’s validity. In addition, I witnessed the evolution of the human behavior. I observed how it transforms into scientific data that could be interpreted for the benefit of mankind. During my first summer in graduate school, I worked as a research assistant for a grief-focused therapy study at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
I used the skills I gained at the housing study to engage in mind-numbing subject matter and dialogue with the participants. My interactions with the participants were deeply rewarding but challenging; developing relationships with terminally ill individuals and engaging in conversation about death and mortality opened my eyes to how a person’s tragedy can be transformed to alleviate the suffering of others through scientific study. I deeply admired the participants of this study while gaining a deeper appreciation of the stories behind the data.
My graduate school experience has well suited my individual orientation as a practitioner-scholar. The academic understanding of research has provided a context to round out my previous experiences as a research assistant. Becoming more comfortable with critical analysis of design and data has given me the confidence to engage in self-initiated learning utilizing current research to have the most valid information in my approach to treatment with a specific client. When time comes that I am to originate my own design, I want to do something both socially and personally relevant.
It should also be something that would also allow me to be creative and free to explore novel territory. My decision to explore grief as it relates to companion animals and pets has been influenced by numerous factors. Although I have felt deeply for special pets both as a child and an adult, it was witnessing the bonds between the homebound elderly and their pets that planted the seeds for my future work. Observing the depth of grief in this highly-isolated population, underscored the importance of this attachment for a growing group of individuals.
On one particular afternoon visit, I remember being greeted at the door by an inconsolable elderly woman, hugging the lifeless body of her cat to her chest. In between breaking sobs, she recounted how her cat had died the night before. She confessed that she was in deep despair but was ashamed by the depth of her emotions. She said she was too embarrassed to call for help or leave her apartment, opening the door to me because she felt I would not judge her. Although I knew that the death of a pet could be a heartrending event, witnessing the combination of her shame and despair remains a salient memory in my mind.
Although there is limited research on the human response after the death of a pet, the process of engaging in novel territory has been exciting and at times, fun. I attended an international pet loss conference in May and became certified as a pet bereavement counselor over the summer all the while enjoying the variety of characters I met along the way. As a result of this interest, I have devised a study that aims to observe the reactions of clinical psychology graduate students over pet loss case material. The element of shame that many people report during pet bereavement has been found to significantly complicate the process.
The quantitative design hopes to contribute to the literature on beliefs that future clinicians hold about this potentially-disenfranchising experience. As a practitioner-scholar, I feel confident of my training and experience in my ability to critically evaluate research design and data. I actively use this ability to incorporate current research into treatment approach and practice. Originating my own design has provided me with invaluable insight and understanding, while the rich nature of clinical psychology has provided a domain to engage in creative and novel work.