On Track: An Education of Olympic Proportion

“I may have been the only sixth-grade girl to simultaneously decorate her bedroom with Olympic rings and write a term paper on schizophrenia,” Laura Widman jokes.

Widman, a doctoral student in UT Knoxville’s Department of Psychology, had two goals from a very early age—competing in the Olympic track and field championships and completing a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. She competed as an NCAA student-athlete as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University in Washington and, due to a series of injuries, narrowly missed the 2000 Olympic trials.

“I decided to refocus my energy on completing my doctorate,” Widman says. “I realize I can make a bigger contribution to society through clinical research and social activism than through an Olympic medal. OK, the medal would have been nice, too!”

Since refocusing her passion on her doctorate, Widman says her professional interests in psychology have evolved considerably. “As a child I was drawn to psychology as a helping profession and thought I would use my degree as a private-practice clinician,” she says. But an undergraduate methods course and subsequent experiences in a women’s psychophysiology lab showed Widman the power of research in understanding human behavior and serving those in need.

Her graduate work at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has furthered her desire to pursue a clinical research career. “I gained valuable experiences with victims and perpetrators of sexual violence,” Widman says. “I co-facilitated groups with sexually abused boys and met individually with several women who were survivors of child sexual abuse and rape. Additionally, participants in my dissertation are convicted sex offenders. These experiences have heightened my understanding of the aftermath of sexual violence and highlighted the urgent need for more effective prevention and treatment in this area.”

In fall 2008 Widman received four separate dissertation award grants from the American Psychological Association, the American Psychological Foundation, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, and the UTK Department of Psychology to support her research. In collaboration with her dissertation chair, Professor Michael Olsen, Widman has developed a novel procedure to capture implicit attitudes about sexual assault. She is investigating the implicit attitudes of convicted sex offenders and non-offending men in the community, hypothesizing that she will find that implicit attitudes significantly discriminate sex offenders from the control group and predict the risk of recidivism. “I’m excited by the potential implications of this research for sexual assault theories and future prevention and treatment research,” Widman says.

Widman credits the faculty of the UT Knoxville Department of Psychology for their collaboration and support. “I think my experiences highlight the collaborative nature of the Psychology Department at UT,” she says. “My thesis advisor was Dr. Deborah Welsh, and my dissertation advisor is Dr. Michael Olsen. Both of these faculty members have been tremendous research mentors, and I continue to be an active member of each of their research labs.

“I have also collaborated on a research chapter with Dr. Derek Hopko and on two manuscripts with Dr. Jim McNulty,” Widman continues. “I have received outstanding clinical supervision from Drs. Kristi Gordon and Todd Moore. I have always felt supported and encouraged by the faculty in our department.”

Among Widman’s collaborations has been her work in the Psychological Clinic at UT Knoxville. She began working in the clinic in 2005, during her second year of graduate training. “I received tremendous supervision from the talented and dedicated clinical faculty in the Psychology Department,” she says. Describing the experience she gained in the clinic, Widman says, “I have worked with individuals and families in psychotherapy and also provided psychological testing services. The experiences I have gained in the clinic have afforded me incredible opportunities for both professional and personal growth as I have learned new therapy techniques, honed my assessment skills, and seen progress and healing in so many of my clients.”

Thanks to her excellent preparation at UT Knoxville, Widman is ready for the next step in her doctoral program—a clinical internship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will begin this summer. “This internship will be the final formal clinical training experience to complete before I receive my Ph.D. in August 2010,” Widman says. She will spend half her time on standard hospital rotations and half at the Federal Corrections Complex in Butner, North Carolina. At the prison facility, she will provide individual and group therapy sessions, and she also hopes to gain further experience working with sex offenders.

Says Widman, “I look forward to applying the research knowledge and clinical skills I have acquired at UT on this final exciting—and likely very challenging—step of my academic journey!”

—Leigh Powell