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In the Spotlight

Dr. Michele Levine has earned a reputation as an expert on the health and wellness of perinatal women, and as a thoughtful mentor who has helped gifted clinical psychologists and early-career researchers develop. Dr. Levine is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology, and an Investigator at the Magee Women’s Research Institute. She is currently the Principal Investigator for two R01 grants funded by the National Institutes of Health: a sequential multiple assignment randomized trial of perinatal lifestyle interventions, and a study examining the role of loss of control over eating and other psychiatric symptoms in gestational weight gain. Dr. Levine co-directs the Clinical Psychology Internship and Postdoctoral Training Programs with her colleague, Dr. Tina Goldstein.  She alsi is a mentor to undergraduate and graduate students, residents and postdoctoral fellows.  Dr. Levine spoke with In the Spotlight about her academic and personal life, and offered some advice for young investigators pursuing careers in clinical research.   

What led you down this career path?

I have a strong memory of the first time a teacher reminded me that it was possible to go find the answer to a question on my own. So, I guess I can credit my second grade teacher, Ms. Ditillo, with my first taste of the satisfaction in finding out the answer to an important question on my own. However, my path to the work I’m currently most excited by has been windy –although some of the twists, especially before I settled on graduate work in clinical psychology were exciting and satisfying.

Entering graduate school, I was interested in “food and mood,” generally, and particularly how stress affected eating. During graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, I was fortunate to work with Dr. Ken Perkins and Dr. Marsha Marcus, both of whom remain friends and colleagues of mine to this day.  As a graduate student, I worked with them to develop two different approaches to managing women’s concerns about gaining weight after quitting smoking and remained involved throughout the conduct and analysis of that large randomized clinical trial . That trial solidified my interest in understanding the ways in which even normative levels of concerns about eating, weight and body shape can affect health behaviors for women.

As I thought about the phases of life during which health behaviors change, I became fascinated with the many positive health behavior changes women make during pregnancy (like seeking prenatal care, taking vitamins, changing eating habits, quitting smoking, or drinking less alcohol), and I wanted to understand why these changes weren’t maintained postpartum. I have been lucky to merge my initial focus on mood and eating behaviors with my interest in health behavior changes across the perinatal period. 

What new projects you are excited to be working on?

I’m really looking forward to learning more about novel clinical trial methodologies. We recently geared up for a new trial designed to identify the sequence of lifestyle intervention across pregnancy and the postpartum year to mitigate maternal health risk by one year postpartum. This trial is a sequential multiple assignment randomized trial (SMART), where women are randomized early in pregnancy and then randomized again postpartum. I’m really excited to think about the ideas for other health and wellbeing topics.  Right now, we’re intervening on perinatal women’s weight and wellness, and I’m eager to learn new ways to deliver an intervention focusing on weight gain and wellness during pregnancy and weight loss and mood postpartum, and learning more about new clinical trial methodologies. 

What advice would you give to trainees considering a career as a scientist in mental health research?

A friend who I met early in my training said it was her goal to do interesting things with interesting people and that advice has helped me.  It has been helpful to me to take the long view and to remember what brings me joy and satisfaction from my work. It’s easy to lose sight of the things that make you “tick” or bring a sense of joy when the pressure is high and the demands constant. Having a solid sense of the kinds of questions I like to answer and why I want to study something helps me weather the ups and downs of daily work life.  I also think surrounding yourself with interesting and interested people that you really like helps!!

What accomplishment of your mentee(s) are you most proud of?

Mentoring is a huge source of joy.  I really love to watch people I care about accomplish things and grow. The pride I feel in my mentees is not only in their accomplishment, I think I get the most joy from seeing people really experience and notice their own successes. For me, feeling successful has always been about the process of accomplishing, not the accomplishment itself.  Life and work often unfold in ways that aren’t really straight line and careers develop and lives evolve, each individual’s sense of what constitutes a successful outcome changes over time. Thus, as a mentor it is important to me to try to understand a trainee’s aspirations and to work to balance these goals with where they currently see themselves and where they are in the process of meeting their goals. 

What do you do for fun/to relax?

I have a busy family life and spend most of my time with my husband, our three teenagers, and our dog.  We all like to ski and try to spend as much time as we can in the mountains.  My family time is full of noise, laughter, and I love to spend time on uncomfortable seats on the sidelines of various soccer fields or in school auditoriums.   I also am lucky enough to also spend time with my brother, who tries to get me to cycle, run, or work out, as much as he does, and with my parents, who live locally, as well as with fun and funny friends! To relax, I love to read, hike, visit old friends or completely lose myself in a television series. I like a good drama and will watch anything my very wise and witty girlfriends recommend!