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Katherine Damme ’18 PhD

Postdoctoral Trainee in the Department of Psychology

Katherine Damme ’18 PhD

The graduate students with whom I collaborate continually amaze me with ideas that challenge current thinking or stretch current methodological approaches in exciting ways.”

Katherine Damme is a postdoctoral trainee in the Adolescent Development and Preventive Treatment (ADAPT) program at Northwestern University. She received her PhD from the Department of Psychology at the Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences in 2018. Her PhD research area was Brain, Behavior, & Cognition, exploring the crossroads of the neural and cognitive sciences. 

How would you describe your research and/or work to a non-academic audience?

Mental illness can be devastating to individuals, families, and communities, but what if we could identify individuals in need of help earlier? My research focuses on identifying early brain and behavioral markers of mental illness and targeting these issues with non-invasive treatments. Practically speaking, this research approach means that I use what we know about healthy adolescent brain development to identify when normal trajectories start to vary into the abnormal. I then examine potential interventions (e.g., exercise, sleep, neuromodulation) to promote healthier neurodevelopment and lower the risk for the onset of severe mental illness.

Tell us what inspired your research and/or work.

One of the most beautiful and astonishing revelations of biology is how similar we all are across development and environments. Yet, the differences in biology, development, and environments result in a fantastic diversity of thoughts, personalities, and behaviors. Despite the beauty of this diversity, it also includes devastating dysfunction: bleak and crippling depression and spiraling mania. Exploring the relationships among biology, development, and environment may hold the key to preventing or alleviating mental illness.

What do you find both rewarding and challenging about your research and/or work?

One of the most rewarding things about my research is its potential to provide hope to patients who feel hopeless and help patients live the lives they would like to have. One of the most challenging things about early identification and intervention is that it is hard to assess the potential impact. You can't measure psychotic breaks or suicides that didn't happen because of the treatment. Sometimes patients are not improving, but it's hard to know if they would have grown worse without treatment. 

What inspires you?

I am inspired by the brilliant graduate students and undergraduate students at Northwestern that I am privileged to mentor. My undergraduate research assistants are so passionate about the work that we do every day. Their dedication keeps me grounded in the excitement that inspired me to do this research in the first place. The graduate students with whom I collaborate continually amaze me with ideas that challenge current thinking or stretch current methodological approaches in exciting ways that may change the way we approach mental illness. I am honored to play a supporting role in their projects.

What did you originally want to be when you grew up?

I recently went through some old boxes with my parents and was surprised to find out that I wanted to be a math teacher, the first woman president of the United States, or a ballerina. While I'm not living up to those presidential or ballerina aspirations, I did end up tutoring youth with math anxiety as a volunteer. When my students realized math isn't inherent but just a set of rules to learn, they were transformed. It's like helping them discover a hidden superpower to solve any math problem, and they just beam with pride and confidence. I also have taught statistics and research methods (which is math adjacent) in my short teaching career. Psychology students typically start out uninterested in the subject but are converted when they realize the power that statistics and research have to ask questions that interest them. 

What advice would you give your younger self or someone considering a similar path?

Obtaining a PhD for an academic path is a big commitment. It demands a lot of flexibility, time, and mental space from you. It extends beyond the 9 to 5, requiring you to engage, stew on ideas, push through on writing, and put in the extra time to help the next generation of scientists. If that sounds exciting, then you're on the right path! 

Published: February 9, 2021

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