A Quest for Healthier Lives: New Study Investigates Smoking Cessation in Couples

In the competitive world of scientific research, the quest for funding is an integral part of driving groundbreaking discoveries forward. We sat down with Dr. Michelle vanDellen, a professor of Psychology at the University of Georgia, to explore her journey, research project, and the essential role of grant funding. Her newly awarded project, titled “Randomized Controlled Trial of Dyadic Financial Incentive Treatment for Dual Smoker Couples: Evaluation of Efficacy, Mechanisms, and Cost Effectiveness,” is supported by a $2,920,773 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) via the National Cancer Institute.

Theory Meets Applied Problem

It all began on Michelle’s first day at the University of Georgia in 2013, where she had the privilege of meeting her mentor, James Mackillop, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at McMaster University and co-investigator on this grant. She recalls her initial aversion to studying smoking but found herself slowly drawn into the fascinating realm of relationships, addiction, and human behavior.
As she delved deeper into the complexities of human behavior within the context of close relationships, Michelle realized that getting both members of a smoking couple to quit was a puzzle that perfectly aligned with her growing expertise in how people pursue goals and make health behavior changes when their partners are involved. This accidental alignment of her theoretical interests with a pressing real-world problem set the stage for her research.

The Crucial Project: Dual-Smoker Couples

Smoking cigarettes remains the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, disproportionately affecting lower socioeconomic groups. Smokers often have romantic partners, and these partners are frequently smokers themselves. When both members of a couple smoke, they face reduced motivation and ability to quit. Professor vanDellen’s project aims to harness the power of relationships, turning them from an obstacle into an advantage.
Her innovative approach seeks to understand the dynamics within dual-smoker couples, with the goal of designing effective interventions to help them quit smoking. By exploring the intricate balance of motivation and mutual influence in these relationships, her research could provide a novel approach to tackle this major public health issue.

The Role of OIBR in the Journey

The Owens Institute for Behavioral Research (OIBR) at UGA played a pivotal role in Michelle’s journey. She emphasizes that her involvement with OIBR was critical from the outset, starting with the grant development program, where she gained insights into the complexities of dual-smoker couples. Through mentorship from individuals like Steven Beach, Regents Professor of Psychology, and James MacKillop, she received the guidance and support necessary to shape her research program. “These mentors have continued alongside me – letting me develop my own voice and research program and showing me how to connect that program to funding opportunities. They have been extraordinary developers of my confidence and skills.”

OIBR also provided two sources of funding for Michelle. The first was through the GDP program, enabling her to take the initial steps in recruiting smoking couples and gaining a deep understanding of the logistics involved in conducting research. When her RO1 grant submission was scored but unfunded, and UGA’s grants-on-the-edge program declined to support her, that’s when OIBR’s seed grant program came to the rescue. This funding allowed her to implement her targeted intervention with 13 couples, which served as pilot data for an R21 grant. With OIBR’s consistent support and connections, Michelle’s journey in securing funding has been both productive and enlightening.

Surprises and Challenges

Looking back, Michelle recalls her surprise by the prevalence of smoking in society. Growing up in an environment where she seldom encountered smokers, she gained a newfound perspective on the significance of substance use and its impact on individuals. This shift in perception encouraged her to delve deeper into her research, addressing the challenges that smokers face in breaking free from addiction.

Yet, with rewards come challenges. Professor vanDellen found the slow-paced nature of behavior change in her research to be a significant challenge. As someone inclined to problem-solve quickly, she had to adapt to the slow-moving process involved in altering addictive behaviors. However, the heartwarming testimonials from participants who managed to quit smoking because of her research have been a deeply rewarding experience. “These unsolicited comments-sometimes well after the end of their participation-remind me that research matters all throughout the process, not just at the publication of results, ” Dr. vanDellen said proudly.

Inspiration of Mentors, Peers, and Students

When asked about those who influenced her decision to work in psychology, Professor vanDellen emphasized the continuous inspiration she gets from her mentors, peers, and students. In her daily interactions, she is constantly exposed to fresh perspectives and questions that motivate her to explore new horizons within the field of psychology. Her passion for understanding people has evolved into a mission to help them, as she recognizes the significant impact her research has on people’s lives.

A Bright Future for Social Psychology

“Social psychologists often wonder if they can find a funding home in NIH and my experiences have told me that—while yes, it’s hard, it’s also possible and extremely important for us to be involved,” Michelle said. Looking ahead, she aims to use her current research project to not only tackle real-world problems but also to train the next generation of social psychologists. She firmly believes that social psychologists can play a vital role in addressing complex issues like addiction, offering innovative perspectives and fresh solutions.

The Bigger Picture

In addition to contributing to the understanding of smoking addiction and relationship dynamics, Michelle’s work promises to expand our knowledge of human motivation within social relationships. Her research is poised to provide new pathways to successful goal achievement, ultimately contributing to the well-being of individuals as they work towards happier, healthier lives.

Author: Andrea Horsman