Psych professor involves students in important mental health research

Deanna Barch, PhD, devotes her career to improving the lives of people living with schizophrenia and depression – while simultaneously providing her students with the teaching, mentorship, and research experience they need to excel in their own careers.

“I definitely didn’t expect that I’d be working in one of the best schizophrenia labs in the country in my undergraduate years, or that I’d get to co-author papers,” says Zunaira, a senior from Pakistan working on her honors thesis with Barch. “Dr. Barch has been a great mentor. She has multiple busy jobs, but she still somehow finds time to meet with all of her grad and undergrad students regularly, and she provides a lot of one-on-one guidance.”

One of Barch’s current research studies focuses on negative symptoms – the absence of things like facial affect, motivation, and pleasure – and cognitive function in people with schizophrenia. They have given cell phones to patients and contact them eight times per day to ask how they are feeling at that moment. She has found that this method results in more accurate reporting of symptoms than when the patients solely answer questions in the lab. The next step is to bring these subjects in for brain imaging to see if their everyday life reports can predict brain activity.

Zunaira is working with Barch on this project, and she said the experience of working closely with these patients has allowed her to develop clinical skills, research ethic and methodology, and teamwork skills. She has even had the opportunity to serve as primary author for an academic paper submitted to a journal for review. No matter what direction she takes her research in graduate school, these are skills she will likely use throughout her career.

Barch says undergraduates like Zunaira always bring a “fresh perspective and new and interesting questions” to her lab. “I also like to see them evolve and grow as scientists and in their confidence in their intellectual abilities.”

Barch committed herself to research on mental illness more than two decades ago, after working as a case manager in Chicago right out of college. “Unless we start to identify causes and do something about it, we’re never going to have enough case managers,” she says. “We’re not going to make a dent in the problem.”

She’s making that dent by finding those causes and determining the best ways to intervene – with medication and/or therapy, for instance – to improve cognition and reduce symptoms.

She also credits her abnormal psychology course – now her favorite class to teach – with steering her toward her field. She calls the course “transformative,” because it provides an eye-opening introduction to mental health problems. The course helps correct some of the myths and misperceptions that surround mental illness, and can also get students excited about a career in research, she says.

Barch has been at WashU since 1998, and two years ago became the chair of the Psychological and Brain Sciences Department. Her husband, Todd Braver, PhD, also teaches and conducts research as part of that department.

Are you interested in studying psychology? Email admissions@wustl.edu to let us know, and we’ll put you in touch with Barch or another professor who matches your interests.