Spring 2013

Getting to Know You...Paula Williams, PhD

Dr. Paula Williams is an Associate Professor of Clinical Health Psychology in the Department of Psychology at the University of Utah. Dr. Williams earned her PhD from the University of Utah (1995) and completed her clinical internship and postdoctoral work at Duke University. Her research integrates and seeks to understand the interplay between personality, cognitive functioning and physiological responses. Dr. Williams was the guest editor of a recent Annals of Behavioral Medicine Special Series on Executive Functioning and Health.

Hi Paula and welcome to your APS Newsletter Interview. To begin, tell us a bit about your current research.

Broadly speaking, my research focuses on individual differences in risk and resilience for adverse mental and physical health outcomes (e.g., stress-related sleep disturbance, health anxiety, cognitive decline), and potential mechanisms underlying these associations. The individual differences of interest include personality, cognitive (especially executive) functioning, and psychophysiological factors (especially tonic respiratory sinus arrhythmia). In recent years, my graduate students and I have been particularly focused on the inter-relations among these individual differences in the context of stress regulation - a term I use to capture the range of stress component processes: exposure, reactivity, recovery, and restoration. I’m especially interested in individual differences in stress restoration - including pre-sleep arousal and sleep, but also aesthetic experiences - finding beauty in art and nature, a key component of the personality factor Openness to Experience--that may also serve a restorative function.

Much of your work takes a five-factor perspective on health. Where do you see this research going over the next 5 to 10 years and what do you believe this approach can achieve?

First off, I think the FFM can serve as a useful framework for understanding individual differences in health. Applying sound personality science to health research helps to avoid the “reinventing the wheel” phenomenon which is still, unfortunately, too common. Exciting personality research is examining the neuropsychological and neurophysiological underpinnings of personality factors (i.e., the endophenotype). This type of research will inform our understanding of mechanisms linking personality factors to health outcomes. I also think a sound personality framework can lead to the development of more effective, tailored interventions.

If members were to read just one paper from you, which would you recommend?

Probably my review paper on individual differences in executive functioning and stress regulation (even though it’s in the journal for a different society).

What topic would you like to see discussed more within APS?

Given how great the APS programs have been (says the Program Committee member and friend to the recent Program Chair), any additions would be “gilding the lily.” That being said, I’ll selfishly suggest greater focus on individual differences, especially behavioral measures and indicators of cognitive functioning. The increase in neuroscience at the conference has been excellent, but there could be greater emphasis on task performance since brain activation patterns do not reliably (or even typically) translate into behavior.

If Oprah came to APS next year and asked who she should follow around for a day, who would you recommend and why?

I would suggest to Oprah that rather than follow around one person, that she convene a panel discussion including Suzanne Segerstrom, Julian Thayer, Jerry Suls, Craig Ewart, and Paul Costa. This would be a great “sampler” of APS-affiliated researchers, but it’s also a collection of interesting people that I greatly respect and who have supported me in my career. Then if Oprah wants to observe APS members “in the wild” I’d suggest she go out with the Utah alumni (and honorary members - you know who you are).

Outside of science, what are some of your favorite ways to spend time?

I’m really lucky to live in Park City, UT and have access to great outdoor activities. We have a hiking trail that runs along the ridge behind our house, so in the summer it’s easy to take a quick hike up to a great view of the area. In winter, I do some (wimpy) skiing, but mostly go for post-ski ginger margaritas. I have a favorite ski run and the joke is that it’s because it goes right to the St. Regis bar. I relish non-work reading - I usually have a novel and a non-fiction book going - and I have an obsessive/ritualistic relationship with the Sunday New York Times. I also have an obsessive/ritualistic relationship with Tony Horton (not really, but it’s true that I often do P90X exercise videos). And my secret, guilty pleasure is watching Heavy Metal documentaries and countdown shows on VH1 and Fuse.

The APS meeting typically occurs during March Madness. You’ve attended schools with well-known college basketball teams. Faced with a bracket where Illinois, Duke, and Utah all make it in, who do you choose to win it all?

I suspect this was supposed to be a difficult choice, but it would be Utah all the way. I started to be a basketball fan as a graduate student during the Rick Majerus (RIP) coaching era (and watching the Stockton/Malone Jazz). As a current Utah faculty member, it would be great to see the basketball team get back to national prominence. No offense to my Duke friends and former mentors.

For more information on Dr. Williams, please see her website at http://www.psych.utah.edu/people/person.php?id=88