In our recurring “10 Questions” series, the Neag School catches up with students, alumni, faculty, and others throughout the year to give you a glimpse into their Neag School experience and their current career, research, or community activities.
Melissa Bray is a professor of school psychology in the Neag School of Education. She joined the faculty in 1999 and is a two-time alumna of UConn, having earned her undergraduate degree in communications sciences from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and her master’s degree in school psychology from the Neag School. Bray is a licensed psychologist and licensed speech language pathologist; a Fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society; and a member of a select group called the Society for the Study of School Psychology.
When did you realize you wanted to become a psychologist? In the early 1990s while working in Wallingford (Conn.) public schools as a speech language pathologist.
What are your research interests and what got you interested in them? I am most interested in mind, body, and health. I have had an interest in researching how the mind affects the body for some time.
That said, I have run many studies looking at how psychologically based treatments — such as relaxation and guided imagery, video self-modeling, and written emotional expression — affect physical change in individuals with asthma and, more recently, cancer. Anxiety, stress, and depression can initiate and exacerbate those diseases, amongst others, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. My research focuses on how the mind — with these types of psychological interventions — change the physical body (e.g., lung functioning measured with standardized spriometry), along with improvements in anxiety, depression, stress, happiness, and quality-of-life measures.
What initially drove you to focus on asthma and stress as your initial areas of interest? I began by researching asthma, as I could handle that without a large grant. I used standardized spirometry [a common test used to assess lung function and help diagnose various lung conditions] to measure lung functioning in response to various psychological treatments.
What have been some of your most rewarding career moments? Intervention research is quite rewarding; I have spent my career to date doing that type of work. My research has focused on classroom behavior, stuttering, and physical heath. My students are what keep me going; they are smart, kind, and motivating.
What research are you currently working on or plan to start in the near future? I plan to try to get a federal grant to support my mind-body-health work, along with my work using video self-modeling for stuttering. I am running a study on stuttering this fall using that technique; I did my dissertation on that topic (stuttering and video self-modeling).
My colleague Melissa Root and I are just about ready to begin an ovarian cancer study in conjunction with UConn Health looking at Relaxation and Guided Imagery (RGI) — a unique recording that has three tracks and focuses on the immune system — and its effects on subjective well-being/mental health (anxiety, stress, depression) and physical health, including biological markers, tumor growth, and cancer recurrence.
“My students are what keep me going; they are smart, kind, and motivating.”
What kind of results do you ideally hope to see come out of your forthcoming ovarian cancer study? In reference to ovarian cancer cells, stress hormones have been shown to increase their invasiveness. This type of work supports the use of stress- and anxiety-reducing interventions such as Relaxation and Guided Imagery to mitigate stress hormone production and reduce its effect on ovarian cancer cell invasiveness. Therefore, the purpose of this current study is to investigate the effects of RGI on psychological (self-perceptions of stress, anxiety, depression, distress, mood, and quality of life) and biological variables (time to ovarian cancer recurrence) in patients with ovarian cancer as a method to hopefully help prevent the initiation and recurrence of ovarian cancer cell growth.
What are the implications for those diagnosed with cancer if your findings show techniques like RGI having a real and positive effect on things like slowing tumor growth? Participants will be engaging in the RGI intervention that has been shown to be effective in reducing stress levels for participants with physical health conditions. Previous literature has suggested that stress reduction in ovarian cancer patients may reduce tumorigenesis. Through engagement in this stress reduction intervention (RGI), participants may reduce stress, anxiety, depression and, in turn, improve overall health. The results of this study will assist the researchers in further understanding the relationship between stress, stress reduction interventions, and ovarian cancer progression.
What research project are you most proud of? The soon-to-be-run cancer study I am very proud of and is something I have always wanted to do. I am proud of the research I have done showing that video self-modeling can improve stuttering. … I am also proud of an undergraduate online class I am developing for this summer on Mind-Body-Health with treatment experientials, where the students get to try the actual therapies.
Has video self-modeling long been established as one technique for treating the condition of stuttering? How does this technique specifically help those who stutter? Video self-modeling … has been used in research for about 20 years. The individuals view a video of themselves not stuttering in a setting where they have problems with fluency. For example, if a person stutters when talking to teachers, that setting would be the focus of the video.
There are a few mechanisms to explain why video self-modeling helps stuttering. One is based on learning theory; in other words, there is a learned component to the individual’s stuttering, and video-self modeling, which is based on social learning theory, helps them to learn not to stutter. Nonetheless, video self-modeling has been partially or fully effective in some people who stutter. It can never hurt to try it with a person who stutters!
What would you say to students who are aspiring psychologists about the journey to becoming one? There are great mental health needs for individuals of all ages. Anxiety, in particular, is beginning in very young children. We need competent professionals, especially in the schools, to help these youth.
 Sood et al., 2013