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'Great Smoker's Myth' Sparks Burning Research Interest

Assistant professor of psychology Alison McLeish is focused on work that could help smokers kick the habit.

Date: 8/10/2008
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Photos By: Melanie Cannon
When it came time to pick the right spot in which to settle into a career, Alison McLeish couldn't help but lean toward a spot on the Ohio River.

The new assistant professor of psychology was excited, she says, at the idea of working in a department with a specific focus on health psychology. And, the Kentucky native admits, the geography was a selling point, too.

"The psychology department is in a period of growth and change, which is very exciting," she says. "Having the medical center so close fosters important collaborative relationships and, as I'm originally from Louisville, I was drawn to a job that would get me closer to friends and family."

Assistant Professor of Psychology Alison McLeish

McLeish earned her undergraduate degree at Duke University and her PhD at the University of Vermont, which she chose for its good combination of research and clinical training and the presence of faculty members in whose research she was interested.

"I took a course in abnormal psychology that I found fascinating and made me want to learn more about psychopathology," she says. "I initially wanted to focus on clinical work and seeing patients, but during my first year of graduate school, I worked as a teaching assistant and found that I really enjoyed that. I was fortunate to be able to teach several courses as a graduate student and loved being able to show students why I think psychology is so fascinating."

McLeish's research interests range from the role of anxiety sensitivity and perceived health in chronic health and psychiatric problems to improving smoking cessation treatment outcomes and increasing accessibility to smoking cessation treatment for veterans. She has coauthored numerous articles on panic spectrum psychopathology and smoking.

Learning about what she calls "the great smoker's myth" really sparked her interest in this area, she stresses.

"The large majority of smokers say that they smoke in order to decrease their anxiety or when they are stressed," she says. "Ironically, smoking actually increases the chance of developing an anxiety problem or making a pre-existing anxiety problem worse."

The particular area of anxiety McLeish studies is a risk factor called "anxiety sensitivity," which she describes as "the fear of one's own anxiety symptoms."

"So someone who is high in anxiety sensitivity will become scared or anxious when they experience symptoms of anxiety, particularly the physical ones, like increased heart rate or shortness of breath," she says.

"These are the same symptoms that are brought on by smoking, so those high in anxiety sensitivity and a smoker are putting themselves at greater risk for developing an anxiety disorder, like panic disorder, and they also have a harder time quitting smoking."

Looking at the cognitive risk factor of anxiety sensitivity in relation to smoking is a relatively new area of research, she says.

"It is part of a growing body of literature examining factors that make it difficulty to quit smoking," she notes. "If you can develop a treatment to address these factors, you may be able to increase certain sub-groups of smokers' chances of success."'

As a teacher, McLeish says, she tries to make courses interesting and to accommodate different styles of learning: "I always enjoyed professors who were clearly passionate about the topic area that they were teaching in," she recalls.

She enjoys both teaching and research, as both allow her "to mentor students to a greater or lesser extent and provide me the opportunity to share my love of psychology and research with a broader audience."

"I remember how bored I got in classes where the professor just lectured at us the entire time, so I try my hardest not to do that," says McLeish, who recalls her graduate-school mentor as "probably the biggest influence on my career."

"I put a lot of effort into preparing and developing my courses and am always looking for ways to improve my teaching skills. Mentoring on an individual level is fun because you are able to see the student's progress and growth in their knowledge of the topic area, research skills and critical thinking skills."

As for exploring the lay of the land on her time off, this new Cincinnati resident enjoys seeing movies, going to museums, eating out and spending time with friends.

"I think Cincinnati is great because there is so much to do here it's a real city! yet the city doesn't feel too big," says McLeish, a runner who likes walking her dog, too.

"And having friends and family come to visit is always fun."

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