David Sbarra

“Right now, when I think about my own work, all I think about is blood,” says Dave Sbarra Associate Professor and Director of Clinical Training in the department of psychology at the University of Arizona. “I’ve committed myself to learning enough immunology and functional genetics to communicate well with colleagues in immunology and genomics. Answers to my questions about psychology and health, I believe, rest in the blood, so I will attempt to drill down and learn what I need to know in order to become a battle-tested psychoneuroimmunologist. I am convinced there’s a way to do so while maintaining my psychophysiology roots.”

Yet Sbarra, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Virginia, under the supervision of Dr. Robert Emery, wasn’t always headed for a career in psychophysiology. In fact, he began by studying close relationships and grieving processes at UVA. “My formal education in psychophysiology didn’t really begin until I joined the faculty at the University of Arizona,” he notes. “John Allen was and still is a great mentor to me in terms of my psychophysiology work. Coming out of graduate school, I knew I wanted to incorporate physiological responses into my assessments of how adults recover from stressful life events. I had a post-doc lined up with John Cacioppo , and I was all set to get some formal training in psychophysiology at the University of Chicago. At the same time, however, I got the position in the clinical program at Arizona. I loved the people here, so I came as soon as I could. In this way, though, I also forced myself to do ‘on the job’ training in psychophysiology. I do regret not having taken the post-doc, but I have enjoyed the path I chose.”

Sbarra, whose research in his Laboratory for Social Connectedness and Health (LSCH) now focuses on the psychological and physiological aspects of close relationships—including the grieving process following, for example, a marital separation or divorce—now considers himself both a psychophysiologist and a health psychologist. But, he notes, “I think there’s a real difference between the two disciplines.” The research questions grad students and post-docs in his lab pose, he says, “are organized around the major conceptual frameworks of each discipline. From psychophysiology, we try to ask questions about how physiological responses provide insight into divorce-related psychological processes. For example, based on our study designs, we often study heart rate variability as an index of self-regulatory capacity or effort during the task demands. Doing so gives us a window into emotional responding when adults reflect over their divorce experience. We can use this information to predict self-reported outcomes, and using the physiology in this way is very profitable.”

On the other side of things, “from a health psychology framework, we try to investigate the mechanisms that might explain why stressful events like divorce are associated with risk for poor health outcomes. For example, we have published work examining blood pressure responses as a function of divorce-related psychology. In this respect, the physiological indicators are on the outcome side of the equation, and we require these variables to have direct relevance for health. This stands in contrast to a lot of work on emotion where we might track physiological changes, but these changes are believed to index an emotional response, not necessarily a health-relevant response.”

While Sbarra believes that neuroimaging will play a critical role in the future of the field of psychophysiology, his own lab, he notes, is embarking on a series of studies that focus on changes in DNA methylation as a function of changes in divorce-related psychology. “This is particularly exciting because we’re starting to investigate how behavioral and psychological change may alter the way genes become methylated, which is an important first step in any consequent gene expression,” he says.

Sbarra, who is accepting graduate students, notes that his lab aims to “find as many people as possible who have an insatiable desire to answer difficult questions. I try to put these people (undergrads, grads, post-docs, and our other collaborators) together, then just get out of the way and help the process where I can.” Typically, Sbarra notes, he doesn’t assign projects. “I let people do what they want, and I encourage their autonomy.”