Interesting People Doing Important Work

Marjorie Malpiede / July 14, 2020

Andrea Mercurio, Ph.D

Dr. Mercurio is a faculty member in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Boston University where she teaches a range of courses including social psychology, women and health, and psychology of eating.  The research lab she directs is called “Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies” reflecting a career-long devotion to physical and mental health and health equity.

After earning a Ph.D from George Washington University, Mercurio began her post doc work in health behaviors and eating disorders in college-aged women.  She later was tapped to do research on obesity when it was emerging as a national health crisis. Of that time, she said, “I went from focusing on young women who are trying to be thinner to helping solve the weight problem in the United States.”

Mercurio said her job at BU has been a great fit, allowing her to work with students and continue her research.  The Healthy Minds, Healthy Bodies research lab combines both activities as her students work alongside her, and independently, on a range of projects including: body image and weight regulation tactics; the effects of appearance messages on exercise attitudes and behaviors; and discrimination and wellbeing among LGBTQ individuals and college student mental health.

The lab’s college student mental health work involved a survey of over 2,000 BU students that looked at a number of factors, including academic stress and help-seeking behaviors.  Mercurio said it was motivated, in part, by the anecdotal evidence she found when interacting with her students.  “I would see it every day in my office,” she said.   “Students would come in to talk with me who were so anxious, stressed and sad and I thought, ‘There is something going on.’”

For Mercurio, the survey revealed a number of concerning points.  “One thing I thought was interesting is that a lot of the students who said they were experiencing sadness and symptoms of depression and anxiety also said they were not going to seek professional help.  It looked like a lot of them were interested in finding someone outside of the mental health profession to support them – an advisor or friend.”

Mercurio saw this as potentially problematic, particularly for first year and transfer students, as well as international students who don’t always have a robust support system.

“They seem to prefer social, informal supports, but for a lot of people, those just don’t exist,” she said.  “BU is a big place, so even if you want to talk to say, your academic advisor, the student experience tells me that they have difficulty establishing an effective relationship with their professors.  There are so many students. Professors’ time is so limited that students struggle making a connection for academic purposes let alone anything that’s more difficult like mental health.”

When asked her theory on the source of students’ distress, Mercurio sees a strong correlation between mental health problems and academic stress. And while these dynamics exist in domestic students, she says she sees it more prominently reported in international students where the pressure to remain in a certain field, or even at university, hinges on grades.

“The academic pressure is high on these students,” she said. “Some are putting that pressure on themselves, others are feeling it from their families, but it basically puts them in a place where their grades are their entire worth.”

Mercurio said that aspirations for graduate school, which require high GPAs, compound this obsession for many students.  “They are emailing all the time, making sure they are getting an A because if they don’t, it dampens their chances of getting into graduate school which is their main goal.”

The survey report suggested that BU, like other schools, ought to examine how to improve pathways into the counseling center, as well as to tighten follow-up afterward so as to better support students who are reluctant to seek help or follow-though on what is recommended.

Mercurio’s related work in body image and eating disorders in young women involves physical and mental health as well as social psychology.  In a recent project, she looked at how women interpret and understand different types of messages that they receive in advertisements for exercising.  “We were trying to understand what is the best way to motivate a girl to exercise without making her feel bad about her body,” she said.

The lab has done consistent work in the area of body image, which involves broadly looking at how women view themselves as well as how changing societal ideals affect their behavior.

“For a long time, there’s been this sort of ideal body type, or as we call it in the literature, the ‘thin ideal.’  ‘You’re skinny, not curvy, and that’s what you should look like.’”

If that weren’t anatomically challenging enough, Mercurio said there is now a new sort of ideal emerging which she thinks is even more dangerous as it is that much more unrealistic.

“Now you’ve got to be thin, fit and curvy – rock hard but no fat.  And to do that, you’ve got to spend an excessive amount of time working on your body.”

While these messages are equally influential on women of all ages, they are particularly powerful on girls and young women who do not yet have competing priorities like children and careers. When asked if the counter message should be about acceptance of self, not adherence to an ideal, Mercurio said it was not that simple.

“What I’ve noticed in working with this research is that we’ve put women in a real paradoxical position,” she said.  “We like to preach, ‘Accept yourself.  It’s not about beauty,’ yet we know from the research that women who adhere more to gender norms and traditional feminine ideals have better outcomes – they’re treated better by people. They are more likely to get jobs. They are more likely to get married.”

“In encouraging women to be true to themselves, Mercurio said, “we need to do that while we let them know what the data tell us.”

Spoken like a true researcher.

Layne Scherer

As a senior program officer at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Layne Scherer holds the kind of behind-the-scenes influence public policy is made of.

What the National Academies says matters which is why many in the field of college student mental health are eagerly awaiting the committee report Scherer is currently leading on college student mental health, wellness and substance use.

Scherer has a masters degree in public policy from the University of Michigan, though her route to government policy work was not exactly linear.  As an undergraduate, also at Michigan, she was a biology major then switched to english and the history of art. She spent four years before graduate school at different non-profits in D.C. where she did administration and fundraising, skills she said were great to learn but ultimately not for her.

“Instead of being the person writing the grants, I wanted to be on the other side, thinking about how to use the money – like how to take research and translate it into action,” she said.

Scherer was eventually hired at the National Science Foundation (NFS) where she worked on policy with the assistant director for education and human resources in the front office, aka, the “control center.”  They oversaw a portfolio of nearly a billion dollars of investment in federal STEM education from K – G. Scherer was the executive secretary for the Committee on STEM Education where she worked on aligning the agendas of the numerous agencies that received funding in this area.

“I got to understand, from a very top level, where the concerns of each agency were: what the specific programs were, what the challenges were, where the data were, and, more importantly, where they weren’t,” she said, referring to research gaps in one of the highest priorities in STEM education: closing disparities for women and underrepresented minorities.

Her experience at NSF brought her to the National Academies where she was first the study director on a report on graduate STEM education. Released in 2018, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century led to her current work on college student mental health.

“The one issue that came up repeatedly in working on that report was mental health,” she said.  “We had a recommendation about support for the mental health of graduate students because everywhere we went, it kept coming up.”

Their concern for the issue was shared by sponsors of what would become the Committee on Supporting the Whole Student: Mental Health, Substance Abuse, and Well-being in Higher Education, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA); the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Scherer, who was recently promoted to senior program director, said the team wanted to broaden the scope of the examination to undergraduate as well as graduate students and include community colleges and minority-serving institutions which are often overlooked in these kinds of efforts.

As the study lead, Scherer does a little bit of everything, a role well suited to a self-described “expert generalist.” Committee reports typically take between a year and a half to two years during which staff convene a committee of experts several times, help them with the research they need, and facilitate their coming to a consensus around a series of evidence-based recommendations that go into a report. Scherer says the statement of work is what holds everything together.

According to its statement, the Committee aims “to examine the degree to which the support systems on campuses provide services, programming, and other resources to students and the faculty, staff, and health systems with whom students interact. Under the auspices of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce, and in collaboration with the Health and Medicine Division, the National Academies will appoint a committee of experts to examine the most current research and consider the ways institutions of higher education, including community colleges, provide treatment and support for the mental health and well-being of undergraduate and graduate students in all fields of study.”

The Committee is chaired by Dr. Alan Leshner, the renowned scientist and administrator who was also the chair of Scherer’s previous committee on graduate STEM, something Scherer says is a huge advantage.  Leshner’s CV includes senior positions at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences where is the emeritus Chief Executive Officer.

The Committee includes top experts in the field of student mental including Daniel Eisenberg, S.J. Axelrod Collegiate Professor of Health Management and Policy, University of Michigan and Director, Healthy Minds Network; Benjamin Locke Senior Director, Counseling and Psychological Services, Penn State University and Executive Director, Center for Collegiate Mental Health as well as college presidents, provosts, and student affairs professionals from schools throughout the country.

Scherer said that once the committee is convened, the members start with a set of questions that are the foundation of the examination. They continue from there with a steady eye on the scope: not too narrow or too broad.  It is the work of the study director is to try to find the balance.  Scherer believes her past experience with agencies and in fundraising has helped maximize the committee’s work.

“Getting people to articulate what they care about is really important,” she said.  “You go through a process where you’re like ‘ok, I’m hearing you say this really needs to be in here.  What’s driving that? Why is that so important to the outcome?’”

The report is due out in November though Scherer says the dissemination plans are uncertain, given social distancing policies that prohibit a large in-person convening.  What really matters to those in this field are the recommendations. While she did not divulge any details, she sees the Committee’s focus on systemic change for “post-traditional” students an important and precedent-setting consideration in what they eventually release. Like most National Academies reports, it will likely call for additional research.

“When I really dug into this and did the analysis, I realized there is substantially less information about community colleges and minority serving institutions than the big research universities even though this is where the students are likely to be,” said Scherer. “I hope the report puts a grounding on how important these schools are to the future of the country.”

As for Scherer, she is not sure where her path will take her after November, but we can be assured it will be somewhere she can make an impact.