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In the Spotlight

Dr. Karen A. Matthews has turned a lifelong passion for “figuring things out” into a successful career as a nationally recognized scientist and gifted mentor who has had a significant impact on the careers of researchers.   Dr. Matthews is a Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Professor of Epidemiology, Psychology, and Clinical Translational Science. She also directs the federally-funded Cardiovascular Behavioral Medicine Research Training program and is actively involved in counseling faculty on career development.

Dr. Matthews’ research focuses on the psychosocial factors involved in the etiology of cardiovascular diseases, with a special emphasis on changing risk at developmental transitions across the lifespan. She has widely disseminated her findings through over 500 peer reviewed publications and presentations at numerous national meetings and conferences throughout the United States.  The mentorship that she received as a graduate student had a profound effect on Dr. Matthews’ academic career both as a scientist and a mentor. 

In the Spotlight recently asked Dr. Matthews about her own career trajectory and strategies she’s used to collaborate and find success along the way.

What are your primary research interests? I investigate the psychosocial determinants of risk for cardiovascular diseases and hypertension. I examine changes in risk at times of transition, adolescence and late midlife, with an emphasis on the intersection of the socioeconomic context, psychological resources, endocrine milieu, and stress reactivity. The rationale for the focus on transitional periods is that it is easier to observe associations during periods of change. My projects use both epidemiological and experimental methods. Currently, my primary projects focus on three areas: 1) investigating the impact of the menopausal transition on women’s mental and physical health in a multi-site, multi-ethnic cohort; 2) studying the association of pediatric depression with later cardiometabolic risk factors in young adulthood, and; 3) examining the impact of neighborhood, school, and family factors assessed prospectively on later cardiometabolic risk factors and sleep in black and white men.

When did you learn you wanted to be a scientist? In the fourth grade I wanted to be an astronomer because I loved thinking about the unknowable. However, I did not decide to train as a scientist until four years after receiving my undergraduate degree at University of California, Berkeley. In that interim period, I had odd jobs and traveled overseas and in Mexico off and on for about two years. My graduate program in personality/social psychology at University of Texas at Austin was a wonderful experience, in part because of my mentors, Drs. David Glass and Arnie Buss, and also the other graduate students with whom I shared the excitement of “figuring things out.” At that time, I conducted studies with Dr. Glass on Type A behavior, considered to be a risk factor for heart disease. The field of health psychology was becoming a recognized subdiscipline of psychology, and consequently I developed a professional identify as a health psychologist as a new faculty member and plunged into research and educating others regarding behavioral factors in cardiovascular disease.

What strategies do you use to help you with time management? My strategies have varied according to career stage. Early on, I tended to accept all opportunities to attend conferences, write book chapters, etc., in case I would not be asked again. I became more judicious in what I agreed to do once I realized that I would be asked to do more things! In general, I also schedule my “fun time,” otherwise, with my temperament, I would fill available time with work. I take off work completely one day a week, unless there are looming grant deadlines. Family meals and family vacations are protected to keep my life in balance.

How have you built collaborations with other scientists? My research interests require that I develop collaborations with other scientists across a number of disciplines. I am fortunate that when I arrived at the University of Pittsburgh, Drs. Thomas Detre and Lewis Kuller opened the doors needed to develop those collaborations. Lew Kuller and I have collaborated on a number of long-term projects, including the Pittsburgh Healthy Women Study of women transitioning through the menopause. Finding common interests and complementary skills are key to developing collaborations where all involved can benefit.

What accomplishments of your mentees are you most proud of? This is a tough question, as I have been fortunate to have many talented mentees who have made many scientific contributions. I am pleased that almost all are still in research. Perhaps the contributions that have had the longest impact are mentees’ review articles summarizing the field relevant to a specific question and specifying new directions of research.

What book, lecture, or author has had a major influence on your work or career? The book Successful Aging by Jack Rowe and Bob Kahn shifted my sole focus on disease mechanisms to include a resource perspective. I found the authors’ conceptualization of the tasks of successful aging, avoiding disease and disability, maintaining mental and physical function, and continuing engagement with life a refreshing take on adult development. I have tried to apply a similar perspective, such as identifying markers of successful transitions, into research on other life stages, including adolescence to young adulthood. 

Name one thing about yourself that most people don’t know. I have been scuba diving for 30 years, despite being quite anxious about potential shark encounters.   

What is the most challenging aspect of being a researcher for you? Taking the time to reflect and not hurry.