Honoring Black History Month: Q&A With Dr. Marisa Spann

In honor of Black History Month, we spoke to Marisa Spann, PhD, MPH, the Herbert Irving Associate Professor of Medical Psychology in Psychiatry and Pediatrics, about her work in early childhood psychiatry, her role as assistant director of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and having honest, direct conversations about race. "I think a huge piece is awareness and the department’s support. Obviously, people want to see change and support change and I think just creating a culture that allows for that safe space and openness. I don’t know the answer yet, but I do think we’ll continue to dialog about how to impart change,” she says.

Tell us about your current work.

I study early childhood psychiatric risk markers and work with families starting in the prenatal period. I follow them and interact with them through preschool age. Because my focus is neuroscience, I use MRI and cognitive-behavioral assessments to look at different brain systems implicated in psychiatric disorders and have been identified as central precursor symptoms, such as emotion regulation and attention, that are associated with psychiatric disorders.

How do you find patients to study?

We find them through partnership with the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which has research nurses in their clinics and a research infrastructure to support recruitment. My other line of research asks similar questions, but with national and international birth cohorts. Right now, I’m working with one of my mentors, Alan Brown, doing parallel research with a Finnish birth cohort. Because early childhood is a time period when psychiatric symptoms emerge, the national cohorts allow identification of those with psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses that can be related to their past prenatal and early developmental history records. 

How do you track identified markers indicating there will be difficulties? Are there services you connect families to?

I follow families through preschool age and partner with research collaborators who study school age children so that we can continue to follow the same families through the age window most common for childhood psychiatric disorders.  Our ultimate goal is developing early risk markers. If the family has a particular concern about a child’s development, then we provide suggestions for community resources or, with their permission, speak to their child’s pediatrician. One of the things I like about this work is that our team become an integrated part of the family. We work with them through so many of their child’s milestones. They may visit us with  questions and concerns, which provides us another opportunity to share resources with them as well provide a space, an opportunity for support.

It's Black History Month. What does that mean to you?

As the assistant director of the Office Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, I think it's super important. For me, the two things that stand out during this month of hope and reflection. I reflect on the sacrifices my ancestors made, the opportunities that they didn’t have so that I could have those opportunities—to be at a top research center and do the work that I do. 

What did you choose to pursue the field of Psychology and to become a researcher?

Originally, I wanted to be a lawyer. I argued a lot with my parents and was very opinionated, so I think my parents were surprised when I said I wanted to pursue a PhD in psychology. But I took an advanced placement sychology course in high school and thought the brain was fascinating, I was riveted by the complexity of mental illness and how it cuts across different disciplines and fields and communities and just how much wasn’t known. I wanted to be part of the solution. With neuropsychology or neuroscience, the tools that we use are validated and technologically advanced, so I thought that those tools could provide an answer or a way to help understand mental illness and prevent it.

What are your thoughts about the represenation of Black researchers in this field and what you need to be doing?

What comes to mind for me is having open, honest discussions about race and the challenges that people face and really putting it out on the table. We also need to think about entry points and criteria for promotion and moving forward. It’s not so much loosening those or reducing those criteria, but appreciating how, if structural systemic racism exists, are these benchmarks even realistic or attainable, for those coming from different circumstances?

What could be better done for diverse-candidate outreach?

Establishing or adjusting the entry point criteria is going to be helpful. For example, there have been a few first-generation college students, minority women I’ve mentored who are about to graduate from Columbia or other top institutions and they’re telling me, “I’ve never worked in someone’s lab” or “I never did a summer internship.” The reason for that is economics—they had to work. The benchmark for them is to graduate and what that takes is different than thinking about “OK, what’s the next step?” and then they’re thinking about, “OK, and then I want to go to medical school” but they can’t focus on that because they have to just make it through that first.

What are your thoughts about learning from other academic institutions and psychiatry departments?

The more openness and awareness we have allow for more opportunities to have programs and interventions that cut across academic institutions, like a cross-collaboration with other New York universities. I know Jean-Marie Alves-Bradford has an ongoing dialogue with other academic diversity officers, but as we continue it’s open communication that will continue to drive this mission forward.



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