The purpose of this living document is to outline the mission of the EMBARK lab at UW-Madison and to set expectations for the lab. This is an aspirational document on what I hope the lab will embody. The inspiration for this came primarily from Kelly Wilson’s Lab Manifesto, which is archived in this 2014 issue of the Behavior Therapist. I stumbled across it in the midst of graduate school and was shook. I often revisit the document when feeling directionless or frustrated with what can feel like colossal, systemic issues science and academia, and reading it brings me home. It is my sincere hope that our work in the EMBARK lab will land on the side of moving science forward and improving real people’s lives. This document will be our routine composition and our navigational tool in that effort.
The Content Mission
The mission of the EMBARK Lab, as defined at our first lab meeting in fall of 2019, is to promote valued living and body acceptance at UW and beyond through investigating eating and exercise behaviors at the individual level.
To advance this goal, we are currently engaged in research on three levels. First, we study the epidemiology and genetic epidemiology of eating and exercise. We start big. We will leverage large, existing databases that include measures of eating behaviors and eating disorders along with biological and genetic markers. The amount of data that people around the world have provided on themselves and their lives, which researchers have then painstakingly curated, is truly astonishing. We will use our statistical tools and skills to approach these datasets and answer questions like: How do specific exercise and eating behaviors relate to one another over time? Why can some people engage in extreme dieting and intense exercise and NOT develop eating disorders, while lower levels of these behaviors trigger eating pathology in others? What are the characteristics, both genetic and environmental, of individuals who are most at risk for eating pathology? How might genetic risk interact with one’s environment and learning in a way that leads to maladaptive patterns of eating and exercise? Not everyone experiences eating disorder risk in the same way, and not everyone with an eating disorder responds to treatment in the same way. By trying to get a sense of how biology and learning interact with one another, we can learn more about how, when, and why these pathways of risk diverge.
Second, we will examine in-lab paradigms that capture response to eating and exercise. Epidemiological data is an awesome tool to look at big-picture patterns, but these datasets rarely have the depth of information or experimental manipulation that we need in order to use that word we’re really itching for at the end of the day – cause. To bridge this gap, we will do smaller scale, in-lab studies designed to understand how and why dieting and exercise produce such variable responses across individuals. These in-lab manipulations will allow us to take hypotheses generated from theory and longitudinal observation and put them to the test.
Third, we will intervene. We are in the business of behavior change. My hope is that our research will lead to interventions that produce value-driven shifts in eating and exercise patterns. To show my hand here – our ultimate goal is not to change biological markers, or…. even thoughts and feelings …. but to help people live a life where their actions are in line with what they care about most. Along the way, (and my 25-year-old self would give me a death glare if she heard me say this) we MAY evaluate how our interventions shift biological signals. But (and here’s where my 25-year-old self would know that I have not been kidnapped by aliens)…. that is not The Point. Eating disorders are pernicious and debilitating and maintained by persistent, rigid eating and exercise patterns. If we change response in a certain brain region with our lab studies but we can’t actually help people develop a more positive relationship with eating and exercise, like, meh, who cares? So we will intervene, and we will do so thoughtfully. We will start with what we know, and we will use hypotheses generated from other modes of inquiry try and do better. We will determine the ultimate effectiveness of our interventions not by how they affect blood levels or brain functioning but by how they affect people’s behaviors, lives, and livelihoods.
One minor note: I am documenting our content mission here in part as a note to myself and in part for you, dear reader, to remind me as needed, because science really gets me going, which can make excitable and distractible as shiny new research questions emerge. Overall, I intend to develop and support research and ideas that align with the lab’s content mission, given available resources. If you want to pursue a question that fits within our content mission and we don’t have the resources or expertise within the lab, we will do our best to team up, collaborate with friendly folks that do, and find a path forward.
Where I Come From:
Some people ‘grow up’ in one or two academic homes. I’m not one of those people. I have meandered my way to this place through an adventurous mess of cities, labs and contexts.
My first formative experience was as an undergraduate, running what is now known as The Body Project in Dr. Carolyn Becker’s lab at Trinity University. This experience was unreal, both because of Carolyn’s confidence in a 19-year-old’s ability, with the right scaffolding, to learn and do good science, and because of how much the research was about making real change in my campus and community. Let’s make a difference too.
After college, I left wide-eyed and with two suitcases to Manhattan, working as a research coordinator on a clinical trial comparing medication and therapy for problem drinking in men-who-have-sex-with-men. I worked in a midtown skyscraper, and, in the overwhelming immensity of New York City, I found my first lab family. Here I also learned that life is big, and that a well-rounded life is bigger than science. Let’s have a lab family, but let’s allow for lives that are bigger than academia.
In the Anderson Lab at the University at Albany I learned the true power of collaboration and of going farther together. My graduate lab-mates remain both my closest collaborators and actual, real-life friends. If I have a question about the psychometric properties of an obscure eating disorder measure, a group message will undoubtedly generate several answers and often a thoughtful, uninhibited, and emoji-filled discussion within minutes. 21st century science does not happen in a bubble, and the more that we, as a field, cultivate, attend to, and grow our relationships, particularly those with the fantastic people who care deeply about the same things that we do, the more we will learn. Let’s do science together.
After graduate school, I turned southward to complete internship at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. It was on a rooftop in New Orleans when my friends and I dreamed up the paper chase – a concept of writing a paper together in 24-hour, hack-a-thon style. Two weeks later we had pitched the idea to faculty and got the go-ahead to organize the event. The point here was mostly just fun. We had divergent research interests, tangentially related to the paper topic if at all, and we all had different strengths in writing. What we did during the paper chase was work together from first to seventh author and be …. in it. We immersed ourselves in being present and creative with one another. Let’s show up for and with one another. Let’s be present collaborators. Let’s build a lab community that joyfully choses immersive, intensive experiences.
Back to the east coast again, this time to Philadelphia. I had basically no idea what grants were or how to write them until this postdoc…..crazy, right? Until this point, my focus was on how to do good research as cheaply as possible. This foundation served me well. Methods are methods, and issues like randomization, order effects, and modeling missing data are present no matter the study. On this postdoc, however, I learned to flip my thinking on possibility and cost. I had previously thought, “what’s feasible?” first, and then designed my research with this answer in mind. Here, I was encouraged to think big thoughts. Outrageous study designs. Complex randomization methods. Collecting expensive data with wearables and scans .…..and then …. eventually…. we would make it feasible. The question was no longer “what can I do with $5” but “what do I want to know and what would be the best way to answer that question.” And sometimes…..sometimes it was more possible than I first imagined! So even if it doesn’t always pan out, let’s start here. Let’s think big thoughts in the hopes of doing the best research imaginable.
I finished my formal training at the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (CEED) at UNC. During this fellowship I saw how research and advocacy were not two separate endeavors, but necessarily intertwined. Raising awareness and speaking out about the importance of research allows for better research questions and opportunities. Let’s do research that matters, and let’s let our findings be heard.
The Process Mission
Let me hear you
Everyone in the lab is valued and everyone is doing science. No matter your level in the lab – you matter. You may know less about multilevel modeling or polygenic risk scores as an undergraduate, but you still have the ability to use abstract reasoning. Ask questions of your lab mates. Ask questions of me. You may see things that I don’t. In a lot of ways, younger and greener folks in the lab will have the benefit of fresh eyes. If you have been around a while, explaining what you are doing will benefit your understanding as well. Communicating complex ideas simply is tough, and regularly explaining what we are learning with one another will make us better at doing this when we share it outside the lab.
Louder for the people in the back.
Part of our lab mission is advocacy. For us, this will include research dissemination, body advocacy, and eating disorder awareness. Research and advocacy will be purposefully integrated and intertwined.
Eating disorders affect up to 5% of people their lifetime, with up to 10% of people experiencing subthreshold eating disorder behaviors. Despite this, eating disorders remain one of the most underfunded and understudied areas of mental health research. Many individuals with eating disorders don’t seek treatment, and those that do often only access to care many years into their disorder. Eating disorder care is lacking in most of the world, and even our best treatments are far from perfect. In the public eye, myths about eating disorders persist, including that they are choices and not illnesses, that they affect very few people, and that individuals with eating disorders have a certain ‘look’ (read: white, young, cis female, high SES).
Our lab is in a privileged position. We have a platform and a mission to educate. At any level – research assistant, research coordinator, graduate student, postdoc, PI: Advocacy is part of our job. Different people have differing levels of comfort with this and may choose to use different platforms. Full disclosure – as a conflict-averse, introverted empiricist who loves me some nuance and thoughtful discourse, advocacy does not come naturally to me. I wade into the pool of advocacy one toe at a time, and uncomfortably so, but I do it because I believe it is important (here we are again, it’s that value-driven behavior that matters, huzzah!). There are millions of people who have or are at risk for an eating disorder, or who care for someone who does, and the experience of eating disorders in minority communities receives even less emphasis in both research and policy. Amplifying the voices of individuals who struggle in the here and now is just as important as the research that could improve risk detection and care in the future. So let’s do it.
There are few things I am more passionate about than working with others. The big questions in science absolutely, hands down, require us to work together. This includes intensive collaboration, both within our lab and with other people, labs, and contexts. I believe that the myth that innovation is driven by “the rogue genius” is completely toxic and reinforced by archaic, patriarchal systems. If we are going to be truly innovative, we need to integrate ideas, ways of thinking, resources, and expertise that one person simply cannot possess, especially as our methods and data are increasing in their intricacy. While we will work to develop skills, there are a host of scientists out there who might be better at things than us, and they might even want to help us out. When we talk to someone with a different academic upbringing than ours, we might see an idea in a different light, bring something new into our field, and push the field forward.
You will get some very specialized training in the EMBARK lab. There are relatively few places in the world studying eating disorders, and fewer still that combine that niche with training in genetics, statistics, and methodology. We will bring our skills to others who come from different fields and backgrounds, and we will work together. We will be generous with our data, time, and expertise whenever possible, and we will collaborate across borders and disciplines. Our aim is to move the science of eating disorders forward. This is not a job for one person, and hanging on to beliefs about the importance of independent, siloed research will ultimately limit our impact.
Keep it light.
We will do serious science, but we won’t take ourselves too seriously. As you may have gleaned from where I came from, this was not a painstakingly arduous road. If you are not (mostly) enjoying this work, you will not (and should not!) keep doing it. We do value-guided behaviors in the face of difficult emotions. This may include some boredom, fatigue, and monotony. But we should not strive for academic martyrdom. I find joy in the process of science, not just the outcome. It’s why I keep doing it. If we lose that joy, we will lose scientists.
Show your work.
We will take the long road when necessary. In the pressure cooker of academia, it is easy to think that you are never enough. Those with psychological training are not immune to the perils of constant social comparison, and it is easy to feel constantly intimidated by those around you. There is ALWAYS someone with higher test scores, more publications, more prestige, more followers, and a better ‘pedigree’ than you. And then there’s the grad school admissions rates and the grant success rates and the academic job market and the tenure process. Yeep. At their worst, these structural pressures can lead to undercooked theory, sloppy research methods, and ill-conceived analyses. In my experience, the most likely element to slip is boring old documentation, which means that when something unexpected happens, we know less about how it happened. As a chaos muppet who most often finds my flow state deep into analysis in the wee hours of the morning, I am aware of the particular challenge of keeping proper code markup. We have one shot to run each study, so let’s do it right. We will document, document, document. We will aim to use open science practices whenever possible. This will include pre-registration of studies on platforms like OSF, including options for participants to share data in our consent forms, and sharing our code and data for published studies in open repositories. Doing these things will slow us down. Doing these things will make us better.
Resist perfection; Seek convergence
If you have made your way to this lab there is a high probability that you’re sitting in the right tail of a distribution of perfectionism and rigidity. These traits are super adaptive for things like killing your SATs and even carefully conducting research. But let’s not let them get the best of us. Extreme rigidity will keep us from moving our work forward. Fear of rejection can limit action, which ultimately limits our experience. Soooo…..
Get ready to fail
We will be rejected. A LOT. And that is totally okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. Do you know those cringey “In this house we….” signs that were all the rage on white mom Pinterest in 2017? You don’t? Ok, nevermind, I guess our algorithms are different. So if I were to put a sign like that in the lab, one of the lines would be “In this lab we celebrate submissions”. Acceptances/awards are cool and all, but I believe that what builds success over time is just putting. yourself. out. there. Which means … and sorry in advance about this one… a lot of failure and rejection. The good news is that (most of the time) systems are set up to give us good feedback. We will get reviews for our papers and grants. We get perspective. We get to learn. We get better. And we will….
Revise, update, revise, update
A common method that we estimate the fit of statistical models is by methods that estimate the parameters of our models by what we know and expect (a prior) and then taking new evidence into account (a likelihood) to create a new estimation (a posterior). This process repeats, repeats, and repeats even more, and the model revises and updates until new information is no longer useful. This will also be our process in the lab. Our theories and models will not always be right. We will revise and update. We will receive new evidence from other labs and new methods of scientific inquiry. We will revise and update. Our actions may not always align with our values. We will revise and update. Society and the pressing questions in eating disorder research will evolve; the context in which we do research will change. We will revise and update. Our lab and our models will never be perfect, but, with the right feedback, they will continue improving.
What I expect
Show up. Show up for lab meetings, show up for the work, and show up for one another. Just show up. Which brings me to my final ask, which is that you honestly assess (and reassess) your availability, interest, and commitment. Don’t ghost me. Don’t flake out. This lab won’t be for everyone. And you may find that it doesn’t serve you in the same way over time. I’d rather you offer an honest assessment of your energy and effort and either cut back or leave the lab than overcommit yourself. We all live full lives and have other things going on. Your mental health is important. Your personal life is important. Communicate your boundaries. Tell me where you’re at.
What I will offer
I will ask you to stretch yourself in this lab. I will ask you to try new things and put honest effort into the work that you do. I plan to return that work to you. I will show up for you both while you are a trainee in the lab and later as you move on. As I ask that you get uncomfortable and prepare for rejection, I will do my best to make the lab a safe place to fail and a rich environment to grow. Honest mistakes are OK. They will absolutely happen and finding them will allow us to make things better.
While most of the principles outlined in the manifesto pertain to the lab and your time in this context, chances are that many, if not most of you, will spend a relatively brief time in academia before moving on to what are likely to be cooler and sweeter gigs. You don’t have to be me to have a positive experience in the lab. I will aim to support your personal and professional growth regardless of your trajectory, and we will build a mentorship team that suits you and where you want to go.
I aim to build an inclusive space for trainees, though I will likely fall short and may not naturally recognize and accommodate everyone’s unique needs. I started this document in the spring of 2020, in the midst of COVID-19 and before Black Lives Matter rose into the spotlight. A month later, we are living in a new reality and I am listening and learning how to be a better ally for BIPOC folks, in particular. Please call me out when needed. I commit to taking genuine criticism. I will fail and grow as I learn to become a better teacher and mentor, and you will help me to do that.
Finally, I will offer a passion for the work that we do. The research methods that we use are cool AF and the work that we do has the potential to really change lives. If you join the lab, it is because you are into this too. I believe that and I will bring that energy to the lab, so that when you feel lost in the details, I will help you to connect back.
Now let’s make it happen.