Born and raised in the small town of Salamanca, New York—the only US city on an American Indian reservation—Laura Anderson saw extensive health problems, mental health issues, and addiction. Even at a young age, she was inspired to help others.
After considering studying vocal performance and a career as a singer, Laura was drawn to take psychology courses. Resonating most was the subject of clinical health psychology. Laura ended up graduating with degrees in psychology and Spanish from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo. She immediately put her education to use as a bilingual family therapist.
Laura decided to continue her education, receiving a PhD in counseling and school psychology. While a graduate student, she was a teaching assistant for a statistics class. Upon completing her PhD, Laura worked as a bilingual school psychologist. During this time she became interested in promoting health and healthy weight within schools. She subsequently did a postdoc fellowship focused on clinical health psychology.
Today, Laura is an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo School of Nursing. As a non-nurse in the school of nursing, she is not accredited to teach nursing-related courses, but teaches in areas such as research methods and statistics.
Her main focus is a multi-component, non-diet intervention she has developed to promote weight loss and healthy weight. It involves dietary changes without feeling restricted and incorporates mental health, coping skills, and stress management. Participants keep daily diaries and track activity with devices such as Fitbits.
In addition, Laura sees patients in private practice. These are mainly patients struggling with obesity who are considering or have had bariatic surgery.
Laura summarized her situation as follows: a junior faculty member in a tenure-track position with a PhD, a post doc, a license as a psychologist, and certification as a school psychologist. She is doing what she loves and loves what she is doing.
But because she wanted to be even better at her job and more competitive, she decided to enhance her skill set through a fellowship in biomedical informatics.
For years Laura had been collecting data about the multi-component intervention she had developed. Patients would provide data at multiple points each day about their diet, activity, coping skills, and more. The amount of data created was enormous. But, while basic analysis had occurred, Laura and her team were unable to mine the data and look at patterns or trends. Also, Laura had not tapped into the data within electronic health records to learn even more.
With the blessing of her dean and department chair, during an eight-week faculty fellowship Laura spent each day in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at the University at Buffalo. She learned about electronic health records, explored data on bariatric surgery patients, and learned about tools such as natural language processing. In completing this fellowship, Laura had identified new research questions to probe and gained new skills to use in analyzing data.
For example, Laura sees the potential to use informatics to better understand which components of her intervention are most valuable and work best with specific patients. This will allow personalizing the intervention and improving outcomes.
“I wanted real-world data to inform our interventions, to ultimately help with precision or personalized interventions. . . the NIH literature, physicians, and psychologists all say multi-component personalized interventions for healthy weight management. How do you develop those unless you have some real-world data to inform it?”
As a mid-career professional, knowing that data is permeating every aspect of healthcare, Laura believes it is essential to constantly acquire new skills in deriving insights from this data. She has encouraged colleagues from nursing and public health to pursue similar fellowships.
While Laura has no plans to become an informaticist—she is quite happy as a psychologist—she has made informatics part of who she is and how she does her work.