Mentorship Helps Busy PhD Candidate Score Master’s and Peer-Reviewed Publication

By Buzz McClain

Laura Wheeler Poms

Laura Wheeler Poms

Ask Laura Wheeler Poms why she assumed such a heavy schedule at Mason and at home over the past few years and she has a succinct answer: “It’s just all interesting. It’s intrinsically interesting stuff.”

There may be others who have studied for a master’s degree while defending a PhD dissertation in an entirely different discipline, but how many of them were also teaching two undergraduate courses at the same time? While raising two teenage daughters? And serving as chair of the Fairfax County Public Schools’ School Health Advisory Committee?

“She’s really skilled analytically,” says one of her faculty mentors, Ali Weinstein, the deputy director of Mason’s Center for the Study of Chronic Illness and Disability and director of the graduate program in the Department of Rehabilitation Science in the College of Health and Human Services. “She’s a very clear thinker and very organized. She’s also very busy.”

Poms was writing her PhD dissertation in industrial/organizational psychology in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and was teaching two classes on organizational behavior when she partnered with Weinstein on an independent study for her master of public health degree, which she earned in 2010.

Weinstein, who holds a PhD in medical psychology, says Poms was familiar with her background in psychology and “sought me out, which is nice,” she says. “That doesn’t happen all the time.”

Mason professor Ali Weinstein with recently Mason graduate Laura Wheeler Poms. The two collaborated on a journal article and conference presentation while Poms was a doctoral student. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

Mason professor Ali Weinstein with recent Mason graduate Laura Wheeler Poms. The two collaborated on a journal article and conference presentation while Poms was a doctoral student. Photo by Alexis Glenn.

The mentorship began as a directed-reading relationship, with Weinstein pointing out relevant material that Poms would need to know. “I gave her a reading list, and we met every other week to discuss the reading,” Weinstein says, a bit awed Poms could balance it all. “And then I came up with a secondary list of readings.”

Weinstein then mentioned she had data for a study of depression among those suffering from nonalcoholic fatty liver disease and asked Poms to team with her on a paper for the peer-reviewed journal Psychosomatics and a poster for presentation at the American Gastroenterological Association annual conference.

“It was ideal because it was psychology and it was health, and I needed a health piece for the degree,” says Poms.

As it happened, Weinstein had access to data gathered at Inova Health Systems by the Betty and Guy Beatty Center for Integrated Research, headed by Mason alumnus and affiliate professor of biomedical sciences Zobair Younossi, that would examine rates of depression among patients with chronic liver disease.

“It’s the interaction between mental health and physical health,” Weinstein says. “It’s the physiological measurement of stress, how the mind and body interact. Having talked with her, I knew she had an interest in depression, and so do I. I knew it would enhance her independent study if she joined the project.”

Six others helped write the resulting study, an experience that taught Poms how each author brings a particular expertise or area of interest to a study and how to offer her own expertise to the project.

The crossing of discipline lines—in this case, psychology and rehabilitation science—is a hallmark of Mason’s academic flexibility when it comes to students tailoring independent study courses to their specific interests and goals. Before their mentorship relationship, Poms had never met Weinstein, much less taken a class with her.

“I was some grad student off the street, and she was happy to work with me,” Poms says. “She’s really good at what she does.”

Poms, who will be an assistant professor in the College of Health and Human Service’s Department of Global and Community Health beginning this month, learned how to be a mentor from Weinstein. “She has a nice way of telling you to do something without telling you to do it,” Poms says.

To read more stories about Mason, check out the university’s News site.

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