Each year the Office of Research chooses a few of our many exemplary Presidential Doctoral Research Fellows to be Spotlight Students. We interview these students to learn more about their experiences as researchers and as graduate students at USU.
Devon Isaacs is a Psychology student in the Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services. Devon works with Dr. Melissa Tehee in the Tohi lab.
Q: What is your name and where are you from?
A: My name is Devon Isaacs and I am a member of the Cherokee Nation from Stilwell, Oklahoma.
Q: What are the differences between Oklahoma and Utah?
A: It is very different. There are different demographics, a different culture, and even a different landscape. Coming to Utah was one of the first times I truly felt like a minority, since my hometown has a strong Native American demographic. I think that when you come to a new place, it is important to find people and activities that you connect to. That can really help you to bridge the gap and prevent isolation. I personally enjoy the Farmer’s Market. I love seeing all the crafts, buying food, and listening to the music there. But it’s also very important to interact with people who are different from you and educate yourself on their cultures. Finding that balance between familiarity and newness has helped me feel more at home.
Q: What are your interests outside of school and your research/what is one fun fact about you?
A: I have recently started working more with traditional Native American artforms as a way of practicing self-care and good mental health. I have learned basket weaving, beading, and ceramics. It helps me to clear my head and connect with my culture. I started learning about traditional art forms in high school and currently have a sculpture exhibited back home in a tribal healthcare facility.
Your Studies and Research
Q: What are you studying?
A: I study the intersection between culture and mental health. The strength of your cultural identity can play a positive role in mental health, but there are also risk factors that come with being part of a cultural group (discrimination, poverty, etc.). The impact of these risk factors can actually be offset through connection to culture and promoting resilience. I tend to focus a lot on helping Native American students find the support that they need to succeed academically. This often means building a sense of community to improve well-being through culture.
Q: What is the focus of your research?
A: I am currently working on my thesis which focuses on rumination and mental health among Native Americans. Specifically, examining underlying factors for poor mental health to help low resource populations address mental health disparity in a practical and beneficial way. I also utilize my positionality as a Native student to bring awareness to issues like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and other important topics for indigenous peoples.
Q: What is your favorite part of your research?
A: Knowing that you really can make a difference. It is a privilege to have the ability to identify specific problems and come up with specific solutions to benefit our communities.
Q: When did you know what you wanted to study?
A: I have a background in the humanities, which has taught me that culture helps shape how you experience the world. It can relate to everything, from mental health and “wellbeing” to what makes life meaningful for different people. In a way, I have always been interested in how culture influences mental health.
Q: What led you to Utah State?
A: My advisor. When I finished my undergrad degree, I knew that I wanted to have a Native American advisor so that there could be an understanding and cultural connection. I literally just google searched ‘Native American advisors and faculty’ for a good match. There were a few that came up and when I reached out to Dr. Melissa Tehee, she was so supportive. She helped me make sure that I was finding a good fit for my research interests, not just a good place to live or get a degree. And it turns out, my best fit was here with her and her research as part of the Tohi lab.
Q: What are your career goals?
A: Teaching and mentoring. I just received a Ford Predoctoral Fellowship which will help me align those career goals with psychological practice. I think in the end I don’t necessarily need to have 1000 publications (though I do want to publish). Rather, I’d like to find a faculty position that allows me to mentor students of color. Then they can help bridge gaps in the research in new and innovative ways too.
A Typical Day
Q: Describe a typical day in the lab/field.
A: I work on a lot of different projects, so there isn’t much of a “typical day” in that sense. It feels like each week we are working on something new. I do a great deal of reading to locate gaps in the research and see how we can fill them. I attend a lot of collaborative meetings. This year my focus is on writing and truly finding my voice. When I’m not in class or engaged in a clinical practicum, I’m finding ways to use that voice to advocate for communities in need.
Q: What skills or expertise do you have/are you growing through your research?
A: I have learned that you can’t be afraid to ask for help. I grew up with the mindset that to succeed you needed to put your head down and work hard, but in grad school you also need to be able to connect with other people. You need to be able to find people that can supplement your weaknesses and recognize your strengths.
Q: What has been a valuable USU resource for you and your research?
A: The people. There are many different resources that I use, but I’d say that the people I meet and talk to are the most important. I have worked with great people like Scott Bates, Melanie Domenech Rodriquez, and Al Savitzky who understand the value of helping other human beings. If you network with different people, they can always guide you to the specific resources you need.
Q: Who is your mentor?
A: Dr. Melissa Tehee in the Psychology Department.
Q: What do you like about the collaboration process?
A: You don’t have to know everything. If there is a gap in your knowledge, you can have access to the expertise required to fill that gap. By searching out different perspectives and people, you can create a truly awesome research project.
Q: What is one valuable thing that research has taught you?
A: Research is really hard! Since research can happen on such a drawn-out timeline, you may not see the light at the end of the tunnel right away. It takes being persistent and following through to the end to see the amazing outcomes that make it all worth the work.
Do you have any advice for new research students here at Utah State?
Look at the world around you. Figure out what needs changing and become that change. At the end of the day, research is really about finding creative solutions to practical problems. But you have to walk the walk. You can’t be afraid to model beneficial change for other people.
Graduate education is not meant for just one “type” of person. Diversity is key to understanding the world around us and making it better for everyone.