Pacific Prepares to Confer First PhD to Psychology Student


Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Dana Dharmakaya Colgan is curious by nature. She’s also fascinated by human nature.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that she has thrived in the field of psychology. 

“I follow my curiosities, and that approach has taken me all sorts of different places,” said Colgan, who is Pacific University’s first candidate for a PhD in clinical psychology.

Pacific has long offered a variety of clinical master’s and doctorate degrees, particularly in optometry and other health professions. Launched in 2013, the PhD in Clinical Psychology is the university’s first PhD program, though. It focuses on a scientist-practitioner model that prepares students to work in research and academic settings. The first degree is scheduled to be conferred at Pacific’s summer commencement ceremony on Aug. 12, 2017.

Before enrolling at Pacific, Colgan — who also has a bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in special education — followed her curiosity down several different paths.

She worked in a children’s psychiatric hospital, as a special education teacher and an autism consultant to school districts and other agencies. She also spent several years working in Nicaragua on the country’s special education program, co-founded two nonprofit organizations in the U.S., and worked with marginalized and underserved populations in Mexico, Laos, Thailand and India.

Along the way, she developed more than a casual interest in meditation, yoga and mindfulness. She became a meditation teacher and yoga instructor and through various partnerships taught meditation, yoga and mindfulness to cancer patients, people with autism and school teachers.

“I had a pretty good understanding of why and how these practices worked from an Eastern perspective, but recognized that if I wanted to bring them into medical and educational settings, I needed to know more about the Western science behind them,” she said.

That desire led her to Pacific’s School of Graduate Psychology, where faculty members have deep expertise in mindfulness studies, neuropsychology, neurobiology and neuroscience.

Her mentor at Pacific, Professor Michael Christopher, has done extensive research on the construct of mindfulness. The school’s dean, Christiane Brems, has researched the scientific and clinical applications of yoga therapy for diverse populations, among other subjects.

Colgan initially enrolled in Pacific’s doctorate in clinical psychology program (PsyD), which prepares students to work in private practice or in hospitals or other applied clinical settings. In 2013, she was accepted into the fledgling PhD in clinical psychology program.

“What I love about the program is this beautiful balance between science and practice. In this model, science informs our clinical practice, and our clinical practice informs the questions we investigate in our science” she said.

“I also appreciated the high level of mentorship and depth of expertise and experience of faculty members. Their expertise is directly in line with my interests.”

Pacific’s emphasis on interprofessional collaboration also resonated with her.

“We are trained to break down the silos within our academic and medical institutions, which not only informs our science, but enriches our clinical practice,” Colgan said.

For her dissertation, she developed a mindfulness-based wellness and resilience program for interdisciplinary, primary care teams.

The 10-week protocol aims to reduce burnout and boost resilience among doctors, nurses and others who deliver primary care. Such healthcare professionals are prone to burnout, which not only affects their quality of life, but may compromise patient care and increase workforce attrition.

Colgan conducted a waitlist control trial of her program at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center’s clinic in Hillsboro, Ore. Over time, Virginia Garcia will offer the program to primary care teams at all its clinics.

Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center serves more than 42,000 patients a year, including large numbers of migrant and seasonal farmworkers and others with limited access to healthcare.

“We take [primary care teams] off the [clinic] floor, provide training for 60 to 90 minutes on mindfulness, resilience and team cohesion and then put them right back on the floor,” she said.

“The focus is: How can we bring mindfulness and resilience into their workday to make it applicable, practical and digestible for them? The idea is to integrate these practices into their authentic workflows,” said Colgan, who will continue to study mindfulness after graduation.

She has accepted a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Oregon Health & Science University, where she will conduct research under Professor of Neurology Barry Oken. Her research, funded by a training grant from the National Institutes of Health, will explore how exactly mindfulness-based practices result in greater levels of psychological and physical resilience in “high-stress populations,” namely healthcare providers and law-enforcement officers.

“I like to have my hands in a lot of different pots,” said Colgan. “I will pursue research, but I also love teaching and think that’s in my future as well.”

At Pacific, Colgan has already blazed a trail.

“She was the perfect candidate” for our PhD in clinical psychology program, said Brems, dean of the School of Graduate Psychology.

“She has a capacity to work from a holistic framework, and is a very capable, logical and rational thinker who can conduct data analyses, run complicated statistics and design complex research projects.”

The PhD in clinical psychology program receives its fifth cohort of students in the fall of 2017. Since its inception, other academic programs at Pacific have put a greater emphasis on research.

The PhD in clinical psychology “laid the groundwork for more research-based academic programs” at Pacific, Brems said.

Pacific’s second PhD program, in Education & Leadership, welcomes its first class this fall. That program is a partnership between Pacific’s College of Education and College of Health Professions and will offer advanced study and research for those who want to teach and lead in educational and healthcare industries.

“Pacific has always prided itself on being a teaching institution,” Brems said. “We are not losing that focus, but we are adding a new focus [on research] within the university and our school.”