Postdoctoral Researcher Dr. Samantha Wilson talks to In The Spotlight about her unique background working with OCD and how it allows her to examine questions about eating disorders from a transdiagnostic perspective.
Research Area: Clinical Psychology
Faculty Supervisor: Dr. Sarah Racine
Tell us a bit about yourself: Growing up in a small suburb of Montréal, I spent a lot of time reading any book I could get my hands on. I believe that my interest in psychology developed from a love of complex literary characters and a desire to better understand them and their motivations. Over time, I learned more about mental health and the difficulties people face in coping with these experiences and also with accessing appropriate resources. The goal of having a career in which I could both help people and conduct research contributing to our understanding of mental health inspired my decision to pursue graduate studies in clinical psychology at Université de Montréal.
As a result of my research and clinical experiences with diverse populations, including eating disorders, OCD, and psychosis, I became interested in the similarities that we find across different mental health disorders. During my doctoral work, I specifically investigated processes that were already established as important in OCD and tested their applicability to eating disorders. This work directly impacted my decision to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship at McGill with Dr. Sarah Racine as she shares my interest in transdiagnostic research that explores processes common to multiple disorders.
Tell us about your research in three sentences or less: The pursuit of thinness has been extensively examined as a primary motivating factor in eating disorders. As a form of approach motivation, pursuit of thinness reflects a desire to move towards a particular goal, in this case, having a thin body. However, there is some research to support the potential role of fear of self in eating disorders as well. Fear of self is a form of avoidance motivation in which an individual is motivated by the desire to move away from undesired characteristics that they fear they may have or be at risk of developing, in this case, being overweight. Using both self-report and psychophysiological measures, my research aims to examine to what extent eating disorders are motivated by approach goals that drive individuals toward an idealized thin body as compared to avoidance goals that prompt them to move away from a feared overweight body.
What excites you most about your work? Thinness is idealized in our society and it is not surprising that the pursuit of this body type has been associated with eating disorders. However, certain behaviours in pursuit of this body type can be difficult to understand. Why would a person starve themselves? Why would a person exercise until they become injured? My research specifically tries to understand the deeper factors that motivate these behaviours in eating disorders, and my unique background working with OCD allows me to examine these questions from a transdiagnostic perspective. This type of research can help us to better understand the complex relationships between eating disorders and other psychiatric conditions. Additionally, research of this kind may also help us to identify potential vulnerability factors that are common to multiple mental health disorders. I am excited by the prospect of delving deeper into the factors that underlie eating and related disorders and hope that this leads to the development of interventions that directly target these processes, potentially contributing to improved efficacy of treatment.
Is there any upcoming work you’d like to tell us about? I am currently working on a pilot project examining the link between the fear of self, pursuit of thinness, and physiological indicators of approach and avoidance motivation. I am also in the process of writing a review article that presents the rationale for integrating fear of self into our understanding of eating disorders. In this paper, I describe the research that has already been done supporting the link between fear of self and eating disorders and propose some ideas for future research in this area.
We also have several ongoing studies in the lab. If you’re interested in the work that we are doing, please visit the Biopsychosocial Examination of Eating Patterns (BEEP) lab website.
What's your favourite thing to do outside of your research? I still try to read as much as I can in my spare time. Otherwise, I love driving around in my car listening to music.
What are your plans after leaving McGill? I still have another year or two left of my postdoctoral fellowship and I’m really looking forward to what new adventures and challenges this time will bring. Afterward, I aim to pursue a career in research. I aspire to continue studying transdiagnostic factors implicated in eating disorders. Eating disorders affect anywhere between .9% to 3.5% of women in North America depending on the disorder and can have important social and health consequences. I would like to contribute to the understanding of these disorders in anyway that I can.
Do you have anything that you'll remember about your time at McGill? I’ll remember the people. I am grateful to my advisor, Dr. Sarah Racine, who has given me the opportunity to learn and develop new skills, and who has challenged me and encouraged me this past year. I also appreciate the support of my lab mates, the graduate students, research coordinator, and undergraduate volunteers who have helped me integrate into this new setting and have helped me to get my research project off the ground. I would also like to recognize the invaluable contribution of the individuals who participated in the research studies I have been involved with, without whom this research would not be possible.
How can people contact you? I can be reached by email at samantha.wilson3 [at] mail.mcgill.ca.