The College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute – It’s official!

Last week the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute (COBE) received official approval from the university as the newest research institute at VCU.  The institute was conceptualized as an innovative way that we at VCU can address the growing rate of substance use and mental health challenges experienced by college students.  Institutes and Centers are formed to promote research and educational opportunities that cut across traditional disciplinary structures that exist within universities, for example, by bringing together faculty from different departments or divisions with shared interests and/or to work toward a common goal.  COBE brings together individuals from diverse constituencies across the campus around the topic of behavioral and emotional health.  COBE connects:

Researchers.  At VCU we are fortunate to have tremendous faculty expertise related to behavioral and emotional health, with researchers studying topics such as substance use, depression, anxiety, relationships, sleep, fitness, emotions, and much more!  These researchers are found across multiple departments and both campuses.  COBE provides an opportunity for these researchers to come together.  At the COBE website, information about researchers who study behavioral and emotional health is centralized, providing an easy way to learn about the portfolio of on-going research on health and wellness at the university.  COBE also provides opportunities for researchers to interact, such as the monthly COBE brown bag lunch series, in order to stimulate new interdisciplinary research collaborations, projects, and grants.  This will enable VCU to continue to build its international preeminence as a premier research institution with a focus on human health.

Researchers, Practitioners, and Administrators.  At COBE we want to do more than just generate research; we want to ensure that the wealth of knowledge created by researchers at VCU feeds back to benefit our students and our community.  COBE connects researchers with the faculty and staff who are involved in prevention, intervention, and service delivery related to health and wellness at the university.  COBE partners with  The Wellness Resource Center to integrate research into the prevention and intervention programming related to substance use and mental health at the university and to disseminate research findings through the Stall Seat Journal.  Further, by partnering with senior leaders at VCU from the Divisions of Student Affairs and Strategic Enrollment Management we can better evaluate how behavioral and emotional health impacts student success at the university and use this information to guide future programming.

Students.  We want students to play an active role in the conversation about well-being at the university.  COBE has create social media channels (you can follow us at VCU COBE on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) to start a dialogue on mental health and wellness.  We share information about research results, both from VCU and elsewhere, related to behavioral and emotional health, and we spearhead ways for students to engage in these efforts (Motivational Mondays are coming soon!).  We partner with student groups who have a shared interest in behavioral and mental health, such as Active Minds, and we work with student groups who want to do projects to promote well-being on campus.  At the COBE website, students can also find information about ways to get involved in behavioral health research, and coursework related to health and wellness.

The Community.  One of our goals for COBE is to build collaborations with community partners who are also interested in promoting health and wellness in young people.  We are fortunate to already be working with the JHW Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness about substance abuse in young adults and supports young adult recovery.  The organization was founded by John and Roz Watkins in memory of their son John Henry Watkins III who lost his life to addiction while he was a college student.  We are looking forward to building relationships with community members who are also passionate about promoting behavioral and emotional health in young people.


By bringing together these diverse constituencies of individuals around the campus, COBE aims to create unique and innovative learning opportunities for our students that promote their health and well-being.  Here are some of the things we have in the works:

The Science of Happiness.  Coming this spring!  COBE faculty are teaming up to create a course that will introduce students to research on the factors that contribute to the continuum of mental health outcomes:  from substance use and emotional health challenges to flourishing and well-being.  Further, students will learn about proven techniques for improving their own health and happiness.  This course will be offered in the Spring of 2016 as a pilot course that can be used toward the required general education elective credits.

THRIVE!   Incoming freshman students for Fall 2016 will be able to apply to live in the new THRIVE residence hall.   COBE is working with Residential Life and Housing to create a program-in-residence that emphasizes well-bing as a core component of the university experience.  Students will have priority registration in the Science of Happiness course, the unique opportunity to engage with COBE researchers,  and exclusive access to regular programming related to health and wellness.

Creative Collaborations.  COBE is taking advantage of the creative scholarship that exists across the university to increase the visibility and accessibility of research findings.  For example, we are partnering with the Department of Communication Arts to engage art students in the presentation of research results in more engaging ways.  We are working with the ALT Lab on the innovative use of digital technologies to present information related to health and wellness.  We are partnering with the Center for Media + Health to design and research social media campaigns to promote wellness outcomes.   Visit our website regularly to see the new things we have coming out!


Ultimately, the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute hopes to stimulate research and discovery related to behavioral and emotional health, to showcase research findings in ways that are accessible and engaging, and to translate this research to inform and improve policy, programming, and practice at the university.  By creating an interdisciplinary “space” for individuals around the campus to come together surrounding issues related to behavioral and emotional health, we hope that we can increase the well-being of our students and the broader university community, and create an environment at VCU where personal growth goes hand in hand with academic discovery.


It Takes a Village: A Big THANK YOU to the COBE team

We survived!  The past week was crazy as we launched the COBE initiative.   Six days and ten (!) Welcome Week events later, we now have >1200 followers across Facebook and Twitter (and if I could ever figure out how to get my Instagram account to work, I know we have more there too).  Our supply of 2,000 COBE t-shirts is nearly gone, and we have another order underway so we can continue to build the COBE community (more to come about times we’ll be in the Commons and around campus).  Next comes the fun part, where we get to create a campus focused on well-being together!

Most importantly, I want to take a moment to send out a HUGE THANK YOU to all the individuals who have made the COBE launch a success.   I especially want to thank my AMAZING team, who did all the heavy lifting (often literally; think 2000 t-shirts being drug around campus!):  Amy Adkins, who oversaw the entire COBE launch, while also supervising our undergrads and prepping for the first week of class; Craig Zirpolo, our new digital media specialist (and recent VCU grad) who just started with our group in July and managed to build a website, launch video, and everything associated with them in the matter of a few weeks; Zoe Neale, my graduate student who juggled classes, clinic, research, and COBE craziness all at once; Jessica Salvatore, my right hand person whose leadership keeps all the grants and projects chugging along, enabling us to engage in ever-expanding new initiatives like COBE; Fazil Aliev and Bin Cho, who amaze me with their statistical brilliance and yet are still willing to pitch in any time a hand is needed (need a fridge painted or bulletin board hung anyone?); Jinni Su, Peter Barr, and Sally Kuo, my three new postdocs who just started and immediately got thrown into the COBE craziness, and jumped in as enthusiastic team players; Megan Cooke and Jeanne Savage, my amazing graduate students, who are always willing to pitch in and help; and lastly, Regina Coles, my project coordinator, who keeps us all organized and makes the group run.  I am so grateful to work with such a talented, supportive, and enthusiastic group of individuals.  None of this would be possible without you.

In addition to the members of my immediate team, there were countless others who helped make COBE possible.  Tom Woodward and Mark Luetke at the ALTlab – you are amazing.  Mark is the talented artist who quite literally brought COBE to fruition.   Remember back in June when I talked to you both about whether we could launch a major university initiative by August?  I think you thought I was a little crazy – but thanks to you we did it!

Linda Hancock – without your support, and the fabulous group of individuals that you have brought together at The Well, none of this would be possible.  Thank you all for being such wonderful partners.

Finally, the launch of COBE is quite literally the product of hundreds of meetings and conversations over the past couple years.  Without the encouragement and support of senior leadership and faculty colleagues across VCU this would have never come to fruition.   Thank you all for making VCU such a creative, innovative place to live and work.



Get to Know COBE

This fall we are launching COBE: the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Initiative, and I couldn’t be more excited!  This effort has grown out of activities related to Spit for Science, a research project focused on identifying risk and protective factors associated with substance use and emotional health outcomes across the college years (and beyond).  Over the last four years, we have enrolled nearly 10,000 students into the project (and don’t worry, we’ll be back again in the spring for the next wave of data collection).   One of the amazing things that has happened as a result of this university-wide research project, is that it brought the university community together to unite around issues related to behavioral and emotional health.

There are faculty across the university who are doing amazing research related to substance use and mental health outcomes.   We already have 34 faculty from 13 different departments, 26 trainees, and more than 150 undergraduate students representing 15 different majors who have worked with the Spit for Science data – and Spit for Science is just one of MANY projects related to behavioral and emotional health that are on-going at VCU.

There are also amazing faculty and staff in student affairs who are devoted to developing fun programming related to health and wellness at the university (don’t miss Love n Liquor at Welcome Week!) and to delivering services to students who are struggling.  But even beyond that, because health and wellness impact so many aspects of our lives, there are faculty and staff across the university who are working to promote student wellbeing, from the VCU Police, to Greek Life, to Residential Life and Housing.

COBE brings together all of these groups to provide a central (virtual) place for all things related to behavioral and emotional health.  Through the COBE website, and through our social media, we will bring together information about research projects and findings, coursework related to behavioral health and wellness, and events and programs across the university related to behavioral and emotional health.  By partnering with dynamic colleagues in the ALT Lab, the School of the Arts, and the Robertson School of Media & Culture, we aim to stimulate a conversation about health and wellbeing that is engaging and interactive (science should be fun!).  We want everyone to feel ownership over COBE, and to join in and make this campaign great.  Follow us on twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, and be part of the movement to make VCU a happy, healthy place to live and work!

On a personal note, the reason I became a university professor is because I love universities (my parents might say I found a way around their “you only get 4 years” adage, but that’s another story…).  I love the atmosphere on an undergraduate campus.  I love the enthusiasm and excitement of thousands of freshman coming to college each year, and thousands more returning to the community they love after a summer away.  I love the sense of camaraderie at a university.  I love the creation and dissemination of knowledge in ways that can make our world a better place.  I love the energy that comes from having a community of brilliant people who are passionate about an incredible diversity of topics, and the innovation that can happen when we all come together in one place.  I love that it takes all of us to make that community, and that by the act of coming together at a place like VCU, we become more than the sum of our parts.  If you are a new student reading this, or a VCU faculty member, or VCU staff – THANK YOU for making VCU the amazing place that it is.  It is my hope that COBE will be a mobilizing force that all of us at VCU can rally around – an effort to make wellbeing a core part of the university experience at VCU.  I look forward to building that with you, and to seeing where it will go!  

Expect the Unexpected

I’m not very good at that.  I’m a planner.  And a perfectionist (in recovery).  There is something very appealing to me about making a plan and having things unfold as expected.  Cue the hard reality:  life doesn’t unfold that way.  That was the big lesson of my 30s.  And I hated it…until I learned to embrace it, because along the way, I discovered that the unexpected actually made life more fun and enriching.  It led to new paths that I never would have predicted or planned.  And they were (wait for it) better than the things I had planned, in many ways.  And the ones that weren’t, I at least learned a lot from, and (begrudgingly) became a better person for it.  Pretty much without exception.

So here we are, arriving at the end of the week-long university seminar on general education.  And there have been a lot of unexpected surprises.  I delighted in hearing Randy Bass speak about the future of higher education.  And I am incredibly excited now to be (unexpectedly) participating in a symposium about Designing the Future(s) of the University, organized by his group, in a couple weeks.  I loved hearing Amy Nelson speak about the fascinating work she had done transforming her class on Russian history into a hybrid connected learning experience.  But having heard her speak at ALTfest, that was expected.  However, since her talk was live streamed, my fabulous co-instructor Dr. Amy Adkins, who is my co-conspirator on our Spit for Science class (read: she makes it all happen), was also able to tune in.  That was pleasantly unexpected.

Also unexpected for me, has been the diversity of responses to the week:  ranging from despair to delight (OK confession: the latter is me), filled with thoughtful comments and questions.   I really enjoy the back and forth exchange – especially when it happens within the same person!   But I have to confess that I don’t fully understand the depth of concern that has been raised, though perhaps I should have been more prepared, since these debates are not new.  No one is being forced to change their teaching methodologies or to change their course.  The idea of the week was to introduce new possibilities for teaching – things made possible by the introduction of connected learning practices and the use of digital technologies and the web.  And the idea of promoting integrative thinking is not new, as several individuals pointed out during our lively seminar discussions.   So why the degree of push-back and concern?  I admit that I don’t fully understand.  If you don’t want to blog, then don’t.  If you don’t want to make a course trailer, then don’t.  If you want simply to stand up in front of a class and lecture every week, then go right ahead.   Why all the fuss?  In a cynical moment I would say that there is a fear that if others start to embrace new technologies and pedagogies, there is fear that one will get left behind.  Evolution has a way of marching forward and driving behavior over the long term.  Sometimes that’s scary.  Some species go extinct.  But great teachers are great in a myriad of ways.  And universities are filled with great people.  So go be great.  And now you have a few extra tools in your toolbox.

Why I love people

They’re just so fascinating! (Says the PhD psychologist).  Don’t worry, I’m not analyzing you (standard response when people find out I’m a PhD psychologist. As an aside, never tell people on an airplane you’re a clinical psychologist; it appears to be taken as a carte blanche invitation for them to spend the next several hours in flight telling you their tragic tales).  In fact my research is focused a lot more on genetics and behavior than human cognitions or motivation.  But I do confess that I find people fascinating, and this week has been a lovely example of why.

I love how smart people, provided the same information, can come away with such different interpretations.  This was evident from day one, session one when our university seminar group watched a video about the evolution of the web.   I loved that video!  And I also found it fascinating that the first person who provided an opinion on it said something along the lines of it being “metaphysical crap”.  Now isn’t that interesting?   This is one of the things I love about academia and about inquiry in general:  that people interpret and process things in such different ways – and that there can be truth in all of those diverging perspectives.  As we have continued along this journey of exploring complex topics like general education, higher education, integrative thinking, and digital fluency, I find the diversity of thought around these issues to be deeply interesting.  I hope that through our rich exchanges, we can all come to a deeper level of thinking about these complex topics.

Then again, perhaps that is just more metaphysical crap!  But it isn’t to me.  Now isn’t that fascinating…

Connecting Learning and Life

Today I had the pleasure of participating in a series of discussions led by Randy Bass, Vice Provost for Education at Georgetown University, as part of our weeklong seminar on general education at VCU.   One of the ideas he raised that really resonated with me was that the “sweet spot” (my words, not his) for high impact practices in general education may lie at the intersection between knowledge of a domain, knowledge of the world, and knowledge of one’s self.  Can we structure our courses to sit at the intersection of these areas, and what impact would that have on our student’s learning?

It struck me that this dovetails nicely with major initiatives that are on-going at VCU.  VCU has a deep commitment to community engagement .  We are an urban university, uniquely placed in the heart of Richmond, with its deep history and challenges.  VCU’s “Make it Real” campaign emphasizes the connection between one’s learning and the broader community/world.

We also have a university initiative underway that emphasizes the connection between health and wellness (which I see as a central component to learning about one’s self) and academic success.  With the support of senior leadership, we launched the Spit for Science project four years ago, as a university-wide research opportunity for students, focused on factors that contribute to substance use and emotional health among college students.  Out of this effort grew a network of researchers from across the campuses who work in the area of behavioral and emotional health.  This fall we will launch “COBE” – the College Behavioral and Emotional Health Institute, which will be a collaborative space (figuratively, not literally; though if you know of any donors that would like to give us a building that would be nice too) that brings together information about on-going research in the area of behavioral and emotional health, prevention and intervention programming at the university, as well as information about events and news related to health and wellness.  The impetus for launching this institute is that behavioral and emotional health must be viewed as a foundation for student success.

So I see us as having a tremendous opportunity at VCU to connect these pieces in order to create innovative, high impact learning experiences for our students.  Perhaps what makes VCU distinct is that we can “make real” a culture of discovery – of particular content areas, of the community, and of one’s self.  What a fascinating general education experience that would be!  Though the “downside” is that we would surely have to come up with a far more engaging term than “general education” to capture that experience.

The Seminarians

Day 1:  “Greetings Seminarians”.  I loved that phrase, glowing up at me from my iphone in an e-mail from Gardner Campbell as I was hurriedly walking (ironically) out of church yesterday.  It referred to a week long seminar on general education, meant to address the big and challenging questions.  What should general education look like?  What is the purpose of higher education?  And, most centrally, what is the role of digital technology in higher education?  I love the diversity of viewpoints, and I’m excited to embark on this journey with a new group of colleagues.

“The Blacklist” takes on gene-environment interaction!

I watch very little television, but I will confess that one of my current guilty pleasures is The Blacklist.  Season 2, Episode 4 was all about how the propensity to aggression is based partly on genetic influences and partly on environmental influences.  It is rooted in this 2002 research paper by Caspi and colleagues, that was published in Science.  Check out the episode.  And when you do, think about how much is accurate and how much is science fiction (my take: they actually got a lot right compared to many media portrayals of genetics).  What do you think about the rogue clinical psychologist?  As we better understand gene-enviornment interactions, do you think there will be people who try to use that information for harm rather than for good? How successful do you think they would be?