Lisa Barry

Q&A with Lisa C. Barry, PhD, from the Center on Aging at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, CT

barryMeet Lisa.

“Meet senior people in their respective fields, learn about the breadth of aging-related work being done, and get advice on how to deal with challenges at different stages of the career trajectory.”

Q: How long have you been a GSA member?  Why did you become a member and what type of involvement do you have?
A: I have been a GSA member (Behavioral Sciences Section) since 2001.  However, I attended my first GSA meeting in 1995 as a recent college graduate.  I became a member because GSA is the leading multidisciplinary and international organization for those interested in aging-related research.  GSA membership provides me with a community of investigators who all share an interest in presenting the best possible science regarding older persons and the process of aging.  Since joining GSA, I have very much enjoyed taking an active role in the Society.  As a student member, I was a Publications Committee Student Representative and I served as the ESPO Chair (Incoming, Current, Immediate Past Chair) from 2004-2007.  As a regular member, I served as the Co-Coordinator of the Epidemiology of Aging Interest Group from 2010-2012 and I am a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences.  I became a GSA Fellow in 2013.  

Q: How does GSA assist with your professional development?
A: GSA has continuously assisted with my professional development throughout my career.  Through my involvement with ESPO earlier in my career, I had the opportunity to work directly with members of GSA Council to plan the annual GSA meeting.  Council members were always willing to answer my questions and to provide advice regarding career development.  My mentors always encouraged me to use the annual meeting as an opportunity to meet face-to-face with senior investigators in my field.  These meetings have been critical for establishing contacts and for making me more known in the field.  More recently, GSA’s Epidemiology of Aging Interest Group has provided me with a network of investigators with overlapping research interests.  

Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
A: While an undergrad at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, I took courses that would lead to a Certification in Gerontological Studies.  This Certification was offered through what was then the Worcester Area Consortium of Gerontological Studies.  I thought that obtaining this Certification would set me apart from other recent college grads as we competed for jobs.  However, what began as a pragmatic reason for pursuing studies in aging quickly became a passion.  With the guidance of Holy Cross professors and GSA member Andrew Futterman, PhD and GSA Fellow Edward Thompson, PhD, I became immersed in aging research, interviewing older adults as part of a study on religiousness and mental health.  With my very active grandparents as my point of reference, I quickly became aware of the diversity of this population in terms of their physical and mental function.  The study participants had so many interesting stories to share and were so appreciative of my willingness to listen to them.  I was hooked and knew I wanted to pursue aging-related research as a career.   I still use the opportunity of the GSA meeting to get together with Andy and Ed each year.

Q: Why is it important for other individuals to join GSA?
A: I feel that it is especially important for students and junior investigators to join GSA.  Membership provides students/junior investigators with an opportunity to highlight their own work, meet senior people in their respective fields, learn about the breadth of aging-related work being done, and get advice on how to deal with challenges at different stages of the career trajectory (e.g., finding a postdoctoral fellowship; applying for your first grant).  Early on in your career, GSA provides a “home” where you can grow as your career advances.  “Younger” members are also so important for the future of GSA.  Over the past decade, GSA has made a lot of changes to show its dedication to students and emerging professionals.  ESPO membership has grown tremendously, and the annual meeting now offers several mentoring events and student awards.  GSA membership also offers opportunities to develop research/work collaborations, and it raises awareness of cutting-edge research developments in aging and aging-related policy issues.  In addition, the shared interest in aging-related research provides a foundation for developing many friendships.  

Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
A: Write papers and get research grants!  

Q: What has been your most memorable experience in gerontology and aging research?
A: One of my most memorable experiences occurred when I was a new postdoc.  My mentor, and GSA Fellow Tom Gill, MD had been encouraging me to submit a K Award Application to the NIA.  For weeks, I agonized over the application and I re-wrote the same sentences over and over again.  I wasn’t getting anywhere.  I finally made the decision to tell Tom that I needed to delay the submission.  I wasn’t ready.  However, I was very worried that I would disappoint him, as his opinion meant so much to me and I very much wanted to meet his expectations.  That day, I learned that a good mentor will not be disappointed in a well-thought out decision, but will instead be supportive.  I also learned to trust my own instincts and not continue to pursue a task just because someone else thinks it’s a good idea.  When I submitted the K Award application, it was the right time for me and it was a grant that I was proud to submit.  

Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
A: Whether it’s GSA or another professional organization, don’t hesitate to get more actively involved!  When you are a student trying to write your dissertation, find a job, and be a partner and parent, it is very difficult to commit to one more activity.  However, in my experience, the time that you put into serving the professional organization is minimal compared with the rewards that you gain from being involved.  I would also say that having a mentor who is committed to your career development is critical.  

Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments?
A: My most recent accomplishment was submitting my first R01 grant to NIH in June.  Although I won’t hear whether or not the grant is funded for several months, just submitting this grant was a huge accomplishment.  My research has largely focused on the association between depression and disability in community-dwelling older persons.  However, since joining the UCONN Health Center faculty in July 2011, I have focused my research on the aging prison population.  Inmates age >50 are the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the U.S., yet are largely understudied. I am PI of an ongoing observational study funded by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention that is assessing factors associated with suicidal ideation and depression in older inmates.  Findings from this study served as preliminary data to support my R01 grant submission.  

Q: Have you had an important mentor in your career? If so, how did it make a difference?
A: I have many people whom I consider as mentors.  However, there are four that have played exceptionally large roles in my career development.  I mentioned Andy Futterman and Ed Thompson, my professors at Holy Cross.  They started me on this exciting trajectory of pursuing aging research and I am very grateful.  Former GSA Member Stan Kasl, PhD, Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at Yale, was my mentor from the time that I started as an MPH student at Yale in 1996 up until his death last year.  I met Stan while attending my first GSA meeting in 1995, and he was intimidating!  He was incredibly brilliant, he had high expectations, and he never failed to ask tough questions. As many others can attest, he was an exceptional mentor who cared deeply about seeing his students grow and excel.  Even after retiring, he was still willing to provide me with constructive feedback about my papers and grant submissions.  I miss him dearly.  Tom Gill, MD, Professor of Medicine (Geriatrics) at Yale, has also been an incredible mentor.  Tom pushed me to be my best and was critical of my work only to make it stronger.  Tom was (and still is) my cheerleader.  He was giddy the day I submitted my K01 application to NIA, reveling in my fatigue and absolutely thrilled that I had reached that milestone.  He readily passed me the tissue box whenever I reached the overwhelming point of exhaustion of juggling career and family, and he offered words of solace when my grandfather died.  Tom is an extremely loyal person, and continues to seek opportunities for me to excel.  He taught me so much.

Want to ask Lisa a question? Contact her on GSA Connect!

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