Newsletter Article

1st Year Clinical Student Receives NSF to Study Fear

Natalia Garcia
Photo: Natalia Garcia

Natalia Garcia is completing her first year of our adult clinical psychology training program working with Dr. Lori Zoellner. Natalia was recently notified that she was awarded a pre-doctoral training fellowship from the National Science Foundation.  A brief introduction of the NSF is provided in another article 

Let's start with the basics, where are you from and where did you complete undergrad/masters?

I am from the Bay Area, California (Santa Clara, Palo Alto, San Francisco) and graduated from UC Berkeley in 2009.

How did you wind up at UW/why did you apply here? What do you think about living in Seattle?

UW offered the perfect mix of a top rated program, a strong faculty match, and the ideal location.  I knew that UW had an excellent reputation with world-renown professors and Lori Zoellner’s research program felt like an excellent fit. I was also excited to live in Seattle; my fiancé grew up here and we were both excited to move somewhere familiar! Many people ask how I am handling the California-to-Washington transition, but the truth is the San Francisco has a very similar climate! I am enjoying living one block from Greenlake and exploring the wonderful restaurants, fun bars, and beautiful outdoors that Seattle has to offer. 

What is your research interest and how did you get into it (what inspires/motivates you)?

Broadly speaking, I am interested in how learning processes go awry in the anxious brain. More specifically, I am interested in the process of fear generalization, the tendency to react fearfully to stimuli that do not in fact signal danger but somehow resemble aspects of an originally dangerous cue. This proliferation of fear cues becomes detrimental to an individual’s ability to register safety and may be a robust marker for PTSD and other anxiety disorders. My research will investigate mechanisms and risk factors that may lead to the overgeneralization of fear. 

I became interested in fear learning processes when I worked at the San Francisco VA Medical Center with Dr. Sabra Inslicht on a fear conditioning study. I became fascinated with the idea that deficits in learning may explain and lead to the maintenance of maladaptive fear responses. 

How did you learn about your funding opportunity and tell us about the application/waiting process?

I learned about the NSF Fellowship for Graduate Students through my lab. I was encouraged by my mentor and some of the older graduate students to apply. The writing process was challenging but exciting at the same time. Luckily, I have a very hands-on mentor who meets with me every week to help me develop my research ideas. Thanks to her, I was in pretty good shape by November of my first quarter to prepare a novel research proposal. 

How did you feel when you learned that your application was accepted and that you will receive 3 years of funding?

It was actually funny because the congratulatory email went straight into my spam folder for some reason! I didn’t know about it until one of my lab mates congratulated me after seeing my name listed as an “awardee” on the website. Once the news registered, my first reaction was to pinch myself - it was really unexpected! Then I called my friends and family to tell them the great news.   

Do you have any advice/tips/suggestions for others who may apply to this opportunity? About graduate study in general?

My biggest piece of advice would be to focus on the “broader impact” sections of the application. Also, remember that the grant is about funding the researcher, not the research, so it’s important to help them get a sense of where you’ve been and where you’re headed in terms of your experiences and your career trajectory. The actual research proposal itself is only a small part of the application. 

My advice about graduate school is to not treat it as if you’re putting your life on hold for six years. Make time for the things that matter to you and don’t hold off on experiences that you’re too busy for now, because chances are you’ll always be this busy! Make time for sleep, spend time with your friends, and learn how to say “no” or “not right now” when things get overwhelming. 

What do you hope to accomplish with the funding and/or while in the UW Psychology graduate program?

After an incredibly busy first year of graduate school, I am looking forward to having more time to spend on my own research. The NSF funding will allow me to focus on my work without having to TA/RA, which should free up approximately 20 hours/week of my time. 

What do you like doing in your spare time?

In my (limited) spare time, when I am not studying or wedding-planning, I enjoy cooking, trying new restaurants, enjoying happy hour with my cohort, walking around Greenlake, and visiting friends and family back in California when I get a chance. And watching Breaking Bad, of course!

The last book and/or movie you saw and enjoyed?

Game of Thrones - the books and the series are equally amazing!


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