Graduating Greyhounds 2014: Mark Pierson, M.S. in Psychology

After completing a thesis focused on creating a screening tool to help diagnose and treat postpartum anxiety, Mark Pierson sets his sights on doctoral programs in biostatistics

By Matthew D. Kudler, '06

Students in Loyola’s master’s thesis track in clinical or counseling psychology receive intensive research training and mentorship in preparation for their careers and matriculation into doctoral programs.

During his time at Loyola, Mark Pierson took full advantage of his opportunity and experience at Loyola, engaging with faculty and external practitioners to study the neglected field of postpartum anxiety.

While some may be familiar with cases of postpartum depression, a clinical depression that affects some women after childbirth, Mark’s research focused on creating a screening tool to help diagnose and treat postpartum anxiety, a different condition that requires separate treatments.

Photo submitted by Mark Pierson

Mark spoke with Loyola magazine about the development of his research and the relationships he forged at Loyola that allowed him to become a member of a team working on this unique field of study.

Your thesis for your master’s degree focused on postpartum anxiety, and you mentioned that there is a need for a screening tool to help diagnose and treat this condition. How did you arrive at your thesis topic and this particular sector, mental health?

Before I began my undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas (UNT), I thought I would enjoy all the facts and figures related to people’s thoughts and behaviors. Once I enrolled in statistics and methodology courses, I realized that I was actually more interested in how facts and figures are amassed: I was fascinated by the research process.

My undergraduate thesis at the UNT (Go Mean Green!) also had a focus on anxiety. When I met with Jason M. Prenoveau, Ph.D., at Loyola University Maryland about the prospect with working together on my master’s thesis, he already had this project in the works. I was familiar with some of the literature germane to anxiety, which made working with him a good fit. Dr. Prenoveau presented the project of validating a screening questionnaire for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) based on the responses from postpartum women. I was interested in the research project, but I also knew that I had a lot to learn from Dr. Prenoveau and his statistical prowess.

You have worked in education and health care research, two very different fields, but similar in that they are both public sectors with a common focus on children and on families. How has your work with each been different; how has it overlapped (if at all); and do you plan to continue research and work in either of these sectors, or conduct research in another public sector?

Working in public health or psychology is a far cry from working in educationat least, in my experience…

Public and mental health do not have the funding or public relations machines behind them to really “know” what is going on in their respective fields. Instead, facts and figures must be estimated using samples of the population of interests, and scientists generalize information from samples using inductive logic. I am a fan of this hypothesis-driven method because science attempts to make the unknown known; it is really cool to be a part of this process.

In education research, these facts and figures do not need to be estimated via samples because we have all of the information about the entire population. Honestly, I like that both research paradigms have a “problem solving” component. For example, “Here is the problem, here is the information, what are the possible solutions?” Then, once tenable solutions are arrived at, researchers can use this information to help solve real-world problems and implement change.

I suppose the whole family connection happened completely by accident, but that is a great observation. I never thought about that. In either case, I think it is wonderful that we can help people with research. There seems to be this idea that people who spend all day sitting in front of a computer are only interested in self-promotion; however, technology can be used to benefit everyoneif the people who have the privilege and access to technology have the right attitude.

Your plans after Commencement are to apply to a Ph.D. program in either quantitative psychology or biostatistics. Why these programs?

I am interested in Ph.D. programs, primarily in biostatistics, because the possibilities are limitless. Biostatisticians can work in academia, industry, or even government. Today everything is so data-driven, and institutions all over the world are collecting enormous amounts of data; yet, there are not enough people trained to extrapolate this information. In other words, there is a vast amount of information out there, but scientists are needed to convert this information to knowledge.

My number one choice for biostatistics Ph.D. programs is housed in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

You mentioned that you’d like to highlight people in the Loyola program who helped get you where you are today.

As Isaac Newton once said, we stand on the shoulders of the giants that stood before us. Similarly, I am indebted to my mentors who were gracious enough to allow me to study with them.

Foremost, I thank Jason M. Prenoveau, Ph.D., who acted not only as my thesis advisor, but more importantly as my mentor. Dr. Prenoveau’s statistical prowess and intellectual savvy proved to be invaluable to my time here at Loyola University Maryland and undoubtedly to my future career as a researcher.

It is also my distinguished privilege to have studied under Martin F. Sherman, Ph.D., who taught me what a grindstone is, how to place my nose before it, and exactly how long it could stay there.

The two aforementioned faculty members at Loyola taught me the value of hard work. For that, I am forever grateful.

What would you tell prospective students for Loyola’s M.S. clinical psychology program?

I would tell prospective students for Loyola’s master’s thesis track in clinical psychology that this experience is a ride worth taking. This program is a challenge, but that is part of the graduate school experience.

The value of cura personalis is what set Loyola apart from other graduate programs for me. Loyola cares for the well-being of their students, and not just their academic success.

Through this graduate program, I have learned problem-solving skills, which expand far beyond academia.

Mark Pierson authored a chapter co-written with Dr. Jason Prenoveau on a two-factor theory of avoidance learning in a book entitled, Phobias: The Psychology of Irrational Fear. He is a member of several national honor societies, including Sigma Alpha Lambda, National Leadership and Honors Organization; Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology; the Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi; and Alpha Sigma Nu, the National Jesuit Honor Society. Mark credits much of his academic success so far to those who encouraged him to pursue his goals, and he now aims to give that gift back to underrepresented students in need.

To read more stories about this year’s Graduating Greyhounds, visit our 2014 Commencement page.

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