Social Justice in Disability and Health Lab

We apply multicultural theory to the healthcare system to determine how to eliminate rehabilitation and health disparities in the context of disabilities and chronic health conditions.

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What VCU PhD programs do I admit students through?

I admit PhD students into my lab through the VCU Health Psychology and Counseling Psychology Programs because of my dual core affiliations in the two programs. I have a secondary affiliation in the VCU Clinical Psychology Program and Clinical students have switched into my lab in the past in order to become my advisee; but I do not admit students through the Clinical Psychology Program or any other program because I do not have a core affiliation in those programs and therefore am not allocated admissions slots. I am planning on admitting a PhD student through the VCU Health Psychology or Counseling Psychology Program to begin Fall of 2022.

What types of PhD student applicants am I looking for?

One of the most important aspects of applying to a PhD program is that your potential advisor is a good personal and research match for you. I had a wonderful relationship with my own advisor when I was a PhD student, and I know how critical an advisor can be in helping PhD students navigate the challenges that doctoral study involves. As a result, mentoring my doctoral students is the most important and meaningful part of my job. To help you figure out whether you might be a good fit for my lab, here are some of the qualities I look for in people who apply to work with me.

The first thing I look for is that applicants have a strong, demonstrated, and sustained commitment to diversity and social justice. “Social Justice” is the first component of our lab’s name, and it encompasses all that we do. It is the value system that drives us. At the end of the day, my hope is that my PhD graduates from my lab will have sharpened the tools they already brought into the lab, and forged new ones, to be agents of social change in their personal and professional lives. The specific way that many of our lab members do this is through their engagement with healthcare systems.

The VCU Health Psychology Program is research-only and does not provide students with clinical training. The VCU Counseling Psychology Program is a scientist-practitioner program that heavily emphasizes both research and clinical training. My lab is comprised of students from both programs and is an extremely research-active lab. As as a result, I do not admit applicants who are interested in a practice-only career or in a career that does not involve research in some notable capacity. Typically, the applicants with the best fit for my lab are those who are potentially interested in a career as a university faculty member, researcher, or psychologist in an academic medical center or Veterans Affairs medical center. I provide substantial publication opportunities and methodological training to students in my lab who are passionate about working toward social justice in disability and health through a career devoted–in part, or heavily–to research. The majority of my PhD students graduate with 10-20 publications and are extremely competitive for postdoctoral fellowships and faculty positions. The vast majority of my advisees also submit their own federal dissertation grants. See the list of publications on my CV that have an * in front of student co-author names. I involve PhD students in all phases of the research process to ensure that they have the skills necessary to be an independent investigator when they graduate.

What research focus should PhD student applicants have who apply to my lab?

I have three facets of my research line, which is entitled “social justice in disability health.” These are: (a) cultural, familial, and international approaches to disability rehabilitation and adjustment, particularly in underserved and minority populations with neurological conditions; (b) social determinants of health (e.g., stigma, access to integrated care, personal and collective strengths); and (c) social justice approaches to understand and dismantle oppression.

I predominantly admit students who are interested in the first facet of my research, which is about 65% of the work our lab performs. This involves research on adapting to disability which conceptualizes disability as an important aspect of identity and examines disability as it intersects with other diverse forms of identity (race/ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender, socioeconomic status, religion, etc.). We also investigate how disparities in rehabilitation and psychological adjustment to disability occur in diverse populations, how stigma may play a role in that adjustment, and how individual, cultural, or collective strengths of diverse populations facilitate maximal rehabilitation and psychological adjustment in the context of disability. Although we are open to conducting research on diverse disability populations, our lab has historically focused on individuals with neurological conditions such as traumatic brain injury (TBI), spinal cord injury (SCI), stroke, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and multiple sclerosis, as well as their caregivers. Because of my joint appointment with the Central Virginia Veterans Affairs Health Care System, I focus heavily on rehabilitation issues in underserved Veteran populations, with a particular focus on TBI outcomes and caregiving. Most of my current grant-funded work is in the context of TBI and SCI.

The second facet of our research on social determinants of health comprises about 25% of the work our lab performs. Although I prioritize student applicants who are interested in the first and most major facet of our lab’s work, I do admit students from time to time who are predominantly interested in the second facet, as long as they have a central health focus (e.g., chronic health conditions, health-related quality of life, primary care psychology) in the context of diverse patient populations. I prioritize applicants whose interests move beyond looking at the effects of discrimination on mental health to actual physical health outcomes and health behaviors. Some recent research in this facet involves a mental and physical health needs assessment we just completed at a free safety-net primary care clinic serving patients without good access to care, as well as a survey of recent Latinx immigrants to the Richmond area to understand their unmet health and social service needs. We also have conducted quite a bit of research on racially/ethnically diverse LGBTQIA+ individuals to examine how intersecting forms of oppression combine to influence risky health behaviors, and importantly how personal and collective strengths can buffer those effects.

The third facet of our research on the psychology of social justice, or conversely oppression, is an important extension of the other two facets. If we spend a substantial proportion of our research lives documenting the effects of oppression, I believe that it is critical we actually do something to understand and reduce oppression itself, in the broadest sense. However, I would note that this is more of a “dessert” area for our lab and encompasses about 10% of our work. Although we engage in this type of research when one of us has an interesting social justice study idea, our strongest passion is for applying multicultural theory to the healthcare system to determine how to eliminate rehabilitation and health disparities in the context of disabilities and chronic health conditions.

I will finally say that I do not expect PhD applicants to my lab, or my advisees once you join my lab, to be exactly interested in all of the research that I am. My advisees actually sometimes have quite distinct lines of research from each other, although they often collaborate with each other on projects of mutual interest and have some degree of overlap. I do not expect students to have their research interests completely firm when they are applying to a PhD program, or even over the first few years that they are in the program, but students will likely have the best experience with me if they have some degree of interest in applying a social justice approach to disability and physical health research.

You are still interested in the Social Justice in Disability and Health Lab. What should you do to find out more information?

My publications are listed on my CV, which is available online on the VCU Psychology website. Look up and read some of the ones that stand out to you as interesting, particularly the ones that are in press or that came out in the past couple years. These will be the most accurate reflection of our lab’s current research. If you do decide to apply to our lab, name me as a potential advisor in the personal statement of your application in order to broadcast your interest. That way your application will get routed to me to review. You can also email me or any of the graduate student lab members if you have any specific questions, and we’d be happy to reply.