This Q&A is part of an ongoing series with Arts and Letters graduate students. Read more Q&As with graduate students and faculty members here.
Holly Levin-Aspenson is a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology. She received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and English from Guilford College and a master’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on the classification, structure, and assessment of psychopathology.
Talk about your research interests. What are you working on now?
The overall goal of my research is to improve how we describe and measure mental health problems so that our assessments more closely match how people actually experience mental illness. I do this by studying statistical models of associations among symptoms and diagnoses to infer what different forms of mental illness have in common.
My current projects include examining whether there is a common factor that underlies all mental health problems and developing more detailed statistical models of psychopathology using symptom-level data.
What inspired you to do this research?
My interest in this topic stems from my post-baccalaureate experience as a project director for a clinical trial. I enjoyed administering diagnostic interviews and learning more about assessment, but I also saw that the overlap among symptoms of different disorders made it difficult or impossible to make reliable diagnoses. I was excited to later learn that there was a large body of research tackling this very problem through quantitative models, and I continue to be inspired by the great work being done by my mentors and colleagues in this community.
Why is it important to re-examine the current diagnostic system?
The diagnostic system currently in use assumes that different forms of mental illness are qualitatively distinct from normal-range experiences and from one another. However, comorbid diagnoses are the rule rather than the exception, and there is overwhelming evidence that mental illness exists on a continuum with healthy functioning. In addition, individuals with the same diagnosis often have very different symptoms.
This evidence all indicates that the current diagnostic system does not describe mental illness as it exists in nature, which at least partially accounts for slow progress in understanding and treating mental illness. This is particularly concerning given recent increased public interest in improving access to mental health care.
I have been fortunate to have the opportunity through my adviser to participate in efforts to develop and implement an empirically based alternative to this system (the Hierarchical Taxonomy of Psychopathology, or HiTOP). Along with my colleagues, I believe that empirically based measurement of mental illness will facilitate more effective mental health interventions.
How did you choose Notre Dame?
I chose Notre Dame for the opportunity to work with the renowned clinical area faculty in the psychology department — particularly my adviser, David Watson — as well as the opportunity to get extensive training in quantitative methods from the quantitative area faculty.
What makes the Ph.D. in psychology distinctive, and why is it the best fit for you?
The program is distinctive for the opportunities it provides for quantitative training, professional development, and mentorship from highly accomplished faculty. I appreciate the resources available to students and efforts the clinical area of the psychology department have made to continually improve clinical and research training.
I hope to work as a research professor in a psychology department after graduation, and fortunately, my program provides a lot of professional development resources and mentorship to help me prepare for the job market.