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My Heart is in the Community

Posted on December 8, 2010

Sheryl Kataoka (bio) explains how she went from medical student to community researcher.


I'm a professor at UCLA in the School of Medicine in the Division of Child Psychiatry. And I never thought I would be in academics nor did I ever think I would do research. I have always been someone who has enjoyed being in the community and I always thought that I would be a physician working out in the community in a free clinic somewhere, you know, in the trenches. And my heart is still there. That's really what my research is all about now. And I just, I was going through medical school, always volunteered at different clinics and then during residency I kind of got a little taste of the research bug.

But it wasn't really until child psychiatry fellowship training that I got introduced to a researcher and started attending these work in progress meetings where people were talking about all these exciting things. And I really was able to see how research could be applied and help diverse communities and communities that weren't getting the care that I wanted to get out there and provide for them.

In my medical training I never learned about research or statistics so I needed those skills if I was going to be effective in research. So I went back and got my masters and really learned about health services research and how wow, there's a whole field, you know you don't have to be a bench researcher with test tubes, you could actually be out in the community working with the community, translating what the university science is learning out into the real world. And that was so exciting to me. So I just got turned onto it and got involved with Los Angeles Unified School District, at the time Marleen Wong was working for L.A. Unified and was the Director of Mental Health. And it was on my very first day of the clinical scholars program that I met her.

And at the time I was thinking my research study would be somewhere in a community mental health clinic because that was the world I knew. And I would do some research to help improve the quality of care there. That was still a great goal but then I met Marleen and I'd never worked in schools but she said, hey, why don't you come join us? I just got this great grant from some funding from the district. I have ten clinicians all raring to go to work with you. Would you help us to develop a program to help traumatized kids? And guess what? You know our district is 70 percent Latino, almost everybody is low income and underserved and could really use your help.

And so there was a number of us researchers fairly junior at the time. I was probably the most junior. And we got together with Marleen and a bunch of her clinicians who were on the ground clinicians working in the schools and we put together this program, CBITS, Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools. And the rest is history.

So I started working in the schools for a really the first time. Learned all about the school organization from Marleen who is just the master; she was such a great mentor and she still is. I learn so much from her every day. And myself as a researcher, I think I've really learned about what's practical and what we really should be doing as researchers to serve kids that need our services.

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Excerpted from an interview with the contributor in Los Angeles in June, 2010.


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