eNewsletter Articles

Shining Together:  How the AFWH Supported our Collaboration

Dr. Chandra Khalifian, PhD, and Dr. Kayla Knopp, PhD

Clinical and Research Psychologists, CDA awardees at San Diego VA, & 2022 AFWH Alumni

One of the great joys in a professional career is building partnerships with amazing colleagues. Starting with completing the same predoctoral internship in couple therapy and mood disorders at VA San Diego one year apart, Kayla has been following in Chandra’s footsteps, and it was during our shared time in the Advanced Fellowship for Women’s Health that we solidified our partnership as colleagues and friends.

The fellowship provided us with excellent training opportunities in working with Veteran couples struggling with mental health problems, as well as in conducting rigorous psychotherapy clinical trial research. We shared the same fellowship mentor, Dr. Leslie Morland, who provided incomparable mentorship on both career goals and life plans. We were also fortunate to have many other examples of strong female researchers at VA San Diego, both in and outside of Women’s Health. The fellowship launched us into our current positions as Research Psychologists supported by VA Career Development Awards: Chandra’s study is developing and testing a couple-based suicide intervention called TR&ST, and Kayla’s study is a clinical trial of an online program for couples called OurRelationship.

Beyond the formal training opportunities, the Women’s Health fellowship provided us with a collaborative, supportive environment focused on promoting research on women’s concerns (including relationship concerns, of particular interest to us both) as well as on nurturing women researchers. In fact, we first bonded while putting together a presentation for the AFWH quarterly Fellows Forum on Shine Theory, a concept describing how women benefit from helping one another shine professionally. This ethos of supporting rather than competing with one another was, in our experience, a central feature of the AFWH, and has a large role in our successful collaboration today.

These days, we co-lead the INTREPID Lab (Innovative and Novel Treatments for Relationship and Individual Distress) at VA San Diego and still work very closely with our mentor Leslie. When we’re not running our CDA studies, we write papers, give presentations, and design future studies together. We are also working together to build up the parts of our careers outside the VA, including consulting with psychedelic therapy companies, seeing couples in private practice, and disseminating social media content (@the.clic.online) for more accessibility to evidence-based research by the general public and to dispel common myths. Our professional partnership allows us to feel more confident in taking risks and going for big opportunities because we know we can rely on one another for strength and help. Above all, we remain great friends and are here to support each other through successes and failures alike. We are grateful for the many benefits of the Women’s Health fellowship, including finding each other.

Featured AFWH Fellow

Dr. Aliya Webermann, PhD – AFWH 2nd Year Fellow at West Haven, CT

I grew up in Maryland and received my PhD in clinical and community psychology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (greatest city in America). My doctoral research surveyed and interviewed college students who reported sexual victimization to campus authorities, finding that reporting and response experiences were highly inconsistent both within and across systems beholden to the same state and federal Title IX policies. After completing my internship at the Women’s Trauma Recovery Team at VA Boston, I was looking for a research-focused postdoc where I could also continue clinical work. The AFWH Fellowship at West Haven had the training and mentorship opportunities I was seeking, specifically around qualitative methods, women’s health, and interpersonal violence among Veterans. It has been a wonderful opportunity to take a breath after the intense hustle of graduate school and focus on what I am most interested in and passionate about. I have felt incredibly supported by my primary mentor, AFWH graduate Dr. Galina Portnoy, and AFWH West Haven Fellowship Co-Director Dr. Sally Haskell. They have been collaborative while also giving me room to develop my own unique program of research. I research VA’s compensation and pension (C&P) processes related to experiencing military sexual trauma (MST), individual-level risk and protective factors for MST and its negative mental health sequalae (e.g., PTSD), and how identity (e.g., sexuality and gender) may impact survivors’ experiences. Though individuals of all backgrounds experience MST, women are much more likely to endorse experiencing MST relative to men. My recent projects have focused on Examiner perspectives on conducting C&P exams for MST, and MST-related PTSD service-connection disability awarding across gender and race. C&P processes related to MST are understudied yet have substantial implications on Veteran choices to utilize VHA healthcare. I plan to pursue funding toward becoming a Research Psychologist and to continue providing trauma-focused therapy to women Veterans who have experienced MST. I am very grateful to my mentors and the AFWH for the opportunity to grow and learn as an independent researcher while receiving the necessary support and guidance.

Welcome to New West Haven Co-Director, Dr. Mary Driscoll!

Dr. Mary Driscoll, PhD

Mary Driscoll, PhD., is a 2014 VA Connecticut (VACT) Women’s Health Fellowship (WHF) graduate and current WHF co-site Director at VACT. She is the National Pain Consultant for VA’s Office of Women’s Health, a core faculty member in the HSR&D funded Pain Research, Informatics, Multimorbidities & Education (PRIME) Center of Excellence and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. Dr. Driscoll is a past recipient of a VA VISN 1 Career Development Award, a Robert E. Leet & Clara Guthrie Patterson Trust Award, and a current HSR&D CDA awardee. She also serves on the Chronic Pain Advisory Council for HealthyWomen.

Dr. Driscoll maintains an active research portfolio rooted in understanding gender disparities in pain and its treatment, the development and tailoring of evidence based psychological interventions for pain that leverage technology and target social/emotional factors, the overlap between trauma and the provision of trauma-informed care. Most notably, she maintains close active collaborations with all of her original AFWH mentors; she credits these relationships and their exceptional mentorship for the countless administrative, academic, clinical and advocacy opportunities she has been afforded.

Her advice to early career women’s health fellows and graduates is to develop a personal and professional mission statement to guide career decisions; revisit it often and revise as experience and passion dictate. Defining the transition from fellow to early career can be challenging. There is often a press to say “yes” to every opportunity that arises. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm and dissatisfaction. Clearly defining who you are and who you want to be, both personally and professionally, can help evaluate opportunities as they arise to determine if they align with your goals. As most AFWH graduates will tell you, there is no shortage of professional possibilities. Having a strategy  to guide decision-making is invaluable.

Navigating a Career as a Women’s Health Researcher at the VA

Dr. Qiyan Mu, PhD, RN

AFWH 2019 Milwaukee Graduate and current Milwaukee Site Co-Director and Nurse Scientist at Clement J. Zablocki VA Medical Center

I always considered myself lucky to find my passion early in my career: doing something for women’s sexual and reproductive health. My education, clinical practice, and research have consistently centered around this topic. As a

professional nurse, I have over ten years of clinical practice as a labor and delivery, neonatal and postpartum nurse, prenatal educator, and fertility health educator. I acquired in-depth clinical knowledge in maternity care and coordination and its positive impact on vulnerable women populations. My Ph.D. training furthered my ability to explore this space and understand the complexity of social, economic, and cultural impact on women’s sexual and reproductive outcomes.

The VA Advanced Fellowship in Women’s Health was a critical building block for my research and leadership development. Through this fellowship, I learned about the unique care challenges women Veterans encounter during their reproductive years and the Veterans Health Administration (VA) healthcare structure. I gained in-depth knowledge of VA Women’s health policy, research, and clinical practice. I had many opportunities to practice my leadership and negotiation skills working with mentors. And most critically, I was able to network and build relationships which led to an interprofessional research team.

My fellowship also allowed me to see VA as a viable career path: There is so much we need to do to improve our research, care, and services to the sheroes who served this country. It was an easy yes when I had the opportunity to take a nurse scientist position at the VA after my fellowship. I continue building my research program and my recently funded research project utilizes mixed methods to assess the implementation of the VA maternity care coordination program and its impact on women Veterans’ pregnancy and birth outcomes. In my new role as a co-director for the Women’s Advanced Fellowship Program at my VA site, I enjoy mentoring and supporting fellows and using my knowledge and experiences to guide their development.

Looking back at my career journey, I want to share one piece of advice: Be open, be brave, say yes to opportunities, and enjoy the surprises they bring to your life! Happy New Year!

We welcomed Dr. Mu as the Milwaukee Site Co-Director in 2022. We are so glad to have her back as part of the fellowship!

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