The University of Tulsa Department of Psychology has a wide variety of faculty-led research labs. From the Exposure, Relaxation & Rescripting Therapy for Chronic Nightmares study to the Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience lab, TU offers students the opportunity to participate in ongoing research and even publish their findings. New to Kendall College of Arts & Sciences, Taka Suzuki brings a wealth of knowledge and experience from the field of clinical psychology. He recently discussed his research and the new INSPIRE lab he’s transitioning to The University of Tulsa.
Q: Tell us about your academic background.
A: I received my B.S. in psychology and physiology from Michigan State University, M.S. in psychology from Villanova University, and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Purdue University. I completed my clinical internship at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and postdoctoral fellowship (National Alliance on Mental Illness, Unger Research Fellowship) at the University of Michigan. I was then hired as an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan for two years before joining TU’s Department of Psychology.
Q: How did you decide to pursue clinical psychology?
A: As a pre-med student preparing for medical school applications, I became licensed as an EMT-Basic and volunteered at hospital emergency departments. I saw medical professionals on both sides of emergency medicine, and I noticed that their personalities were expressed differently depending on the context. This reminded me of my experience moving between the U.S. and Japan as a child – I was the same person with presumably the same personality traits, but they came out differently depending on my surrounding culture. These experiences led me to think about how the interaction between personality and context could underlie stress and psychopathology, and I joined a psychology lab at MSU.
Q: What experience do you have in clinical research?
A: My clinical research broadly investigates how to understand psychopathology using a “transdiagnostic dimensional” approach. “Dimensional” means we consider psychopathology as “extreme versions” on a dimension that most people experience. For example, most people experience sadness and anxiety, but we would consider it psychopathological when these experiences get too intense. “Transdiagnostic” means we think these dimensions are not bound by traditional categories you may have heard of, like post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorder, or schizophrenia. Rather, we think underlying combinations of these dimensions could explain the high rates of multiple diagnoses. Within this broad framework, my research has focused on personality and psychosis spectrum disorders (including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder).
Q: Explain some of the research you have conducted.
A: In graduate school, I focused on investigating how personality disorders and general personality traits relate. Using different types of advanced statistical analyses, we showed that models for personality disorders and general personality were mostly capturing the same thing, supporting the transdiagnostic approach. We also showed that some personality disorder traits were the extremes of general personality traits, supporting the dimensional approach. Starting in postdoc, I investigated how psychosis spectrum disorders are also transdiagnostic and dimensional. In this area, I’ve focused on how brain activities that we observe in many forms of psychopathology could be related to daily difficulties and the negative emotions that clients and patients experienced, like distress, anxiety, and sadness.
Q: Tell us about the INSPIRE lab.
A: It’s a lab I started while at the University of Michigan with a team of graduate and undergraduate students and research coordinators. We primarily focused on collecting and analyzing electroencephalogram (EEG) data from individuals with psychosis spectrum disorders. To make sure that the laboratory findings translate to daily lives, we also asked participants to complete multiple surveys every day for about two weeks (Ecological Momentary Assessment; EMA). I have been able to continue the work I started at Michigan and, with the help of a former undergraduate RA, I’m transitioning the lab to TU, where we’re hoping to expand the scope of our research.
Q: What kind of research will your lab conduct?
A: We plan to continue the EEG and EMA combination of research. We’re in the process of setting up the lab and hoping to start recruiting research participants soon. We are setting up the lab at TU to investigate many forms of psychopathology and the similarities and differences amongst them. While maintaining a relatively broad approach, I plan to establish a personality and psychosis spectrum disorder emphasis. Additionally, I plan to investigate the basic properties of brain activities, such as how well they relate to personality traits and various psychopathology dimensions measured through questionnaires and interviews.
Q: What can graduate and undergraduate students expect from participating in research labs like this?
A: We do a lot in our lab, and my plan is to give students as many learning opportunities as possible. All students in our lab will be involved with participant data collection and will get trained on collecting and processing EEG data. We will also have journal clubs, so we can discuss a broad range of current clinical and neuroscience research. There will be opportunities for undergraduate students who have demonstrated capability to be involved further, like preparing for conference poster presentations. Graduate students in the lab will eventually conduct their own research projects and will be involved in analyses and manuscript preparations.
Q: How important is it for undergraduate students to get hands-on experience in research labs?
A: For students considering graduate or professional school, it is essential. It gives students an opportunity to see if this career is something that they would want to continue and an appreciation of science that underlies their profession. Admission into graduate school and securing research jobs are becoming more competitive every year, so some research experience is essentially a prerequisite. Even if students are not interested in a research career, seeing “science in action” helps with critical thinking skills and becoming an informed consumer of research and information. Science isn’t only about expanding knowledge; it is the process of approaching any question.
Q: What classes are you most looking forward to teaching?
A: I have been teaching Neuroscience and Psychopharmacology and Graduate Introductory Statistics classes. These are areas that I wanted to teach, so I’m enjoying it so far! With the exciting changes happening now at TU, I hope we can expand these courses into series with multiple faculties. That would allow us to get into more depth and to teach applied knowledge, like advanced EEG methodology and transdiagnostic psychopathology courses, which I would love to teach in the future.