Campus Life

Rob Rotunda, Psychological and Behavioral Sciences

By Susan Feathers, Research and Sponsored Programs

Robert Rotunda is a licensed psychologist and an associate professor in the School of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences (SPBS) at the University of West Florida, where he teaches a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses and is the coordinator of the Master’s Degree program in Counseling Psychology. He received his Ph.D. in Clinical/Community Psychology from the University of South Carolina in 1993 after completing a clinical internship at the Brockton and West Roxbury Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a training affiliate of Harvard Medical School (HMS).

SF: What is your current area of research?

RR:  Addictive disorders including alcohol-related disorders and other addictive behaviors such as gambling; marital and family therapy (alcohol-dependent families, domestic violence, trauma, and most recently disaster response)

SF:  When was your university appointment with UWF?

RR:  My first university appointment was at UWF in 1996 after receiving my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of South Carolina in 1993. Before coming to UWF I worked at a VA Medical Center supervising Doctoral trainees in a specialty addiction program.

SF:  How Did You Get Started in Research?

RR:  I jumped into research as an undergraduate through a directed study project at an Anxiety Disorders Clinic where I was exposed to the clinical world— people seeking help for anxiety disorders— but it was also a research clinic. At the clinic I was able to work with teams of graduate students on various research projects. This experience resulted in an Undergraduate Research Award and opportunity to present at a conference and my first publication.  That was my first experience in research.

SF:  Our new Office of Undergraduate Research provides these kinds of experiences.  Do you think this is an important experience for undergraduates?

RR:  Yes. That’s right. It is very important to start early.  Our students in Psychology are not required to conduct a directed research project other than what is included in classes that cover research methodology and ethical issues in research.  UWF faculty is primarily focused on teaching, and, in our department with over 500 majors, there simply aren’t enough research-trained faculty members to support directed-studies for every student as we would like to do.

SF:  In the School of Psychological and Behavioral Studies you have a lot of faculty doing research. How big is the staff?

RR:  13 full time faculty plus our department Chair…everyone is supposed to be doing research. Not all faculty research can include students and much is conducted with colleagues at partnering universities.

SF:  Is there a particular senior faculty member who served as a mentor for you?

Not in particular. The more experienced and senior psychology faculty served that role for me at different times during my career at UWF.

RR:  Would you recommend that as a strategy for young faculty?

I recommend they aim high, identifying long-term programmatic goals for their research areas but also to seek projects that they already have familiarity with, or capitalize on work with colleagues and graduate and undergraduate students.  Not all projects can be funded…you can’t just rely on funded projects… so you need to spread the work out and look for people and opportunities early on – which is what I did.  New faculty should identify an area of their discipline in which they want to become an expert, then work hard to become known in that specific area – this is really important as they are starting out…that way you can focus your work a bit better, and avoid the danger of spreading yourself too thin.

In my case it was alcohol and the family, and couples-treatment of alcoholism.

SF:  What should new faculty do first? What are the pitfalls?

RR:  Starting by working on projects they began in their graduate study but did not complete is a good way to begin, looking for available data or depending on their field, established methodology helps them get started faster without having to wait on funding.  On a basic level it is helpful is to schedule a day or  a half day each week for research; even if you don’t exactly keep to that schedule, at least you are getting something done.  You have to protect that slotted research time very dearly because usually things will interfere.  My best time was in the summer when I did not teach or teach that much…it was the only time I could mass enough time to get a lot done.  But that is not ideal for everyone; working on projects as they find time each week is probably a more productive way to do that. And, work with others; it is easier to work with small teams because you can work on shared projects and get a lot done.

SF:  Are there websites or groups that are good sources for new faculty to explore for funding in your field?

RR:  Well the American Psychological Association is a great site for most of the resources and news for our particular discipline.

SF:  What kind of funding have you received for your research?

RR:  I started with small internal grants and summer research awards. I would recommend these to untenured folks and choose circumscribed projects that be done with a limited budget, do them and look for some kind of pay off from it—conference presentation or publication.  Then build a record before you go for external funding I have received a grant to study state-wide gambling and a small foundation grant for disaster response curricula, getting students involved in disaster response.   This is a developing area that I am teaching a course in now.

SF:  Would this be what you call preventive therapy?  Preventing depression or PTSD? It seems that everybody is heading that direction in healthcare. A lot of money for collaborative treatment teams is pouring out of the government agencies and foundations.

RR:  Yes, absolutely.  You can do a lot for people to mitigate more serious mental health problems just through listening and providing resources at the right time during or after crisis.  If people feel they need more in-depth help then they can be referred to counseling.

SF:  How much do you think a person’s mental health impacts their physical health and well-being?

RR:  I think mental health has a lot to do with physical health.  I think we have come to understand how stress can affect the physical health of people and how exercise and activity can reduce anxiety and depression. So I think they are intertwined.

SF:  So would you consider that part of your philosophy or the department’s approach to teaching mental health and wellness?

RR:  Nowadays that is embedded in most applied courses.  Some more than in others…for me as a clinical psychologist who just saw 8 patients in my clinical practice, it’s obvious… you know…headaches, physical problems, pain are either caused or exaggerated by stress, and that  is usually interpersonal in nature.

SF:  Is it common for faculty in your field to also have a clinical practice?

RR:  No.  I am one of four clinical psychologists in our department and am the only one that has a part-time practice (one day a week).

SF:  Do you think that makes your teaching more vibrant?

RR:  I really do. That is one of the main reasons I do it…I like working with people; if I can bring actual examples, fresh examples, to students to complement their readings, it makes it interesting and keeps me fresh too.

SF:  Is there anything else that you want to share with us?

RR:  I really like what the Office of Research is doing to support faculty by providing a stipend for release time to write a grant proposal.  This will encourage faculty to go for bigger pots of money.  This is still primarily a teaching institution; we have a heavy load of teaching responsibilities.  I think efforts like this will help us become more of a research institution.  We are a larger institution with 12,000 students now.  We should support more research, but faculty must have time to do it.

A research-based incentive program—adding to base salary when faculty are awarded s a big grant—is basic behavioral psychology, reinforces good behavior.  So a merit-based system would help if you want to encourage research at University of West Florida.  There used to be a teaching incentive program here where faculty applied for this award, a nice award, they received monies added to their base salary. They (administration) cut that out about five years ago.  So merit-based systems for excellence in teaching and research—TIP and RIP—would encourage a lot of us!

SF:  Research is exploring what some universities have done to reward research teams with stipends to work collaboratively planning and writing departmental or interdisciplinary proposals.

RR:  Yeah, that’s great.

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