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Clinical Psychology student ranks third in her category for national graduate scholarship

LĂȘ-Anh Dinh-Williams focuses her research on the neurobiology of depression. (Photo by Ken Jones)

Receiving an award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada is an honour, but for an application to be ranked third in its category across the country takes the honour to the next level. That’s exactly what happened to Lê-Anh Dinh-Williams, a PhD student in the Clinical Psychology program.

“When I mentioned it to one of my supervisors, he said, ‘What? You need to tell people about this!’” laughs Dinh-Williams. “It is an honour, and to receive support from a group of external reviewers helps further fuel my motivation to continue my studies and pursue this line of research.”

Dinh-Williams’ research focuses on examining the neurobiology of depression, especially how neural responses to rewarding activities, such as playing a card game or engaging with meaningful sources of positive emotions (e.g., interacting with loved ones or accomplishing an important goal), can predict who will experience depression.

“My masters allowed me to explore how people’s reactions to basic rewards (e.g., winning a card game) can promote conditions of vulnerability to depression; now, I’m motivated to examine whether this also applies to more meaningful sources of positive emotions,” she says. “Ultimately, I’m interested in understanding how we can help promote positive emotions in people suffering from chronically low mood,” she says.

The Clinical Psychology program, which began in 2013, has 21 students enrolled. But it’s generated more than $1.8 million in student funding. “That’s the real story,” says Zindel Segal, Director of Clinical Training for the program. “If we were writing this 15 years from now and we had been around for 20 years, it wouldn’t be newsworthy,” he says. “But for a young program trying to plant seeds, it’s very encouraging.” Accounting for this success, Segal suggests it has to do with the training model. “There are a variety of programs emphasizing clinical training, but ours emphasizes clinical science.”

From about 200 applications per year, only five students are admitted. “The students in the program are all extraordinary,” says Michael Bagby, the Chair of the Graduate Department in Psychological Clinical Science. And students get a wide range of training, adds Bagby. “Some of the faculty have strong neuroscience backgrounds, others have experience in defining and treating schizophrenia, others in clinical neuropsychology, and others in cognitive behavioural therapy and mindfulness-based interventions.”

In fact, the accomplished faculty factored into Dinh-Williams’ decision. “I came here essentially because of my supervisor, Dr. Segal, who is world-renowned in terms of research, but what’s truly inspiring is that his research has clear clinical implications,” she says, “His work has not only improved our understanding of depression, but also transformed how we go about treating patients living with this disorder, so to be involved in research that helps improve the quality of mental health care is an honour.”

What’s coming down the pipeline for Dinh-Williams? She’s not 100 per cent sure. “This program is long; you are growing as you go,” she says. But she does know one thing: “Clinical psychology is a fairly young science and there is a lot we have yet to know; I’m interested in continuing our understanding of how best to treat mood disorders through research.”


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