Arts & Sciences School of Medicine

The path to the National Academy of Medicine

In this Q&A, Deanna Barch, PhD discusses her path to a research career, the importance of interdisciplinary inquiry in health and medicine, and the big questions that drive her work. Barch was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine.

Deanna Barch

A few weeks ago, on a late Friday afternoon just as the work week was wrapping up, Deanna Barch received an unexpected email. Barch, the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry and chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, knew that she had been nominated for the National Academy of Medicine – but she also knew that it often takes many years for nominations to lead to election. So it felt “out of the blue” to suddenly learn that she had received one of the nation’s highest recognitions in the fields of health and medicine. “I was incredibly honored,” she said. In this Q&A, Barch discusses her path to the Academy.

What medical and health-related questions do you address in your work? 

My research is broadly focused on understanding the psychological and neural mechanisms that lead people to be at risk for the development of mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and depression. I’ve done work to understand the psychological and neural impairments that are present in adults who already have manifest mental illness, particularly schizophrenia and depression, and also to understand really early-life risk factors at the neural and biological and environmental level in infants.

My work’s focus has been shifting to increasingly younger in life, as we try to move earlier and earlier in identifying the earliest possible manifestations of mental illness. The evidence suggests that mental illness is more treatable the earlier you can intervene. We’re also starting to think about prevention, not just early intervention. Can we identify risk factors that put kids at risk for the development of mental illness, and what could we do to intervene so that they don’t ever develop some of those symptoms in the first place?

Did you always want to help people with mental illness?

I have known I wanted to be a psychologist since I was in high school. I was a peer counselor and found it really interesting, and so thought I would be a school counselor working on mental health and academic issues. I’m the first person in my family to graduate from college, so when I went to college I didn’t know anything about research. But then one professor basically changed the trajectory of my life and career. This professor had a habit of taking kids who did well in the class and asking them if they wanted to be involved in research. She did research on depression, and I loved the whole experience.

Barch is co-leading a study that uses advanced brain imaging techniques, structured interviews, and behavioral testing to tease out how life experiences, along with a child’s changing biology, affect brain development. The image shows the functional organization of a 9- to 10-year old brain, averaged across more than 1,100 individuals. (Image: Scott Marek)

From the name, one might assume that the National Academy of Medicine is made up of physicians. Why do you think it’s important that they include researchers from a variety of backgrounds?

I then worked as a case manager for the chronically mentally ill for a year after college. I worked primarily with people with schizophrenia, so they were a very, very ill population, and there was just such a huge number of people who needed help. It made me realize that I might have a bigger impact on eventually improving people’s lives through research, rather than one-on-one intervention. That’s what pushed me into more of the science and research route – the idea that maybe I can have a bigger impact for a broader range of people in terms of prevention and eventual mental health help.

My daughter actually asked me that same question. She’s like, “Wow, I didn’t know you were an MD!” The criteria is whether you’re contributing to specified subfields, and my work falls under psychiatry. I do think it’s critical to include a variety of members, because people of different disciplinary backgrounds bring really different perspectives about the genetic, biological, and environmental determinants of health. The perspective that many PhDs can bring to the table is a diverse understanding of the ways in which the environment can contribute to health, really making it a richer representation of all the factors that we know are relevant.

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