Psychologist Deborah Wiebe, Ph.D., is hunting for happiness in some unlikely places. “I study what people do to keep themselves happy and healthy, particularly when they have reason not to be—like when they’re dealing with serious chronic illness,” explains Wiebe, a professor of health psychology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.
“People are remarkably resilient. They seem to rise to the challenge. Positive emotions are a resource to help one cope, and I’m interested in understanding how people do that.”
Wiebe says much of her research focuses on how adolescents and their families manage type 1 diabetes. “Prior to adolescence, parents can be highly involved,” she says. “But during adolescence, their child spends more time away and eventually assumes responsibility for managing the illness. Families are trying to support the child’s normal development while keeping them physically healthy and helping them develop the skills to manage the illness independently. It’s a real challenge.”
The attraction of type 1 diabetes for Wiebe is that it is “an illness that can be managed if you understand it,” she says. “It’s a very psychological behavioral process that allows you to actually change its course over time. You can use this research to begin to help families.”
A Program Pioneer
Wiebe came to UAB to earn a doctoral degree in the new field of health psychology, but once she arrived in Birmingham, she broadened her horizons. “I met a professor who really wowed me in describing the synergy that exists between public health and health psychology,” she recalls. “So I went to the director of clinical training in psychology and asked whether I might obtain training in both areas. By the next semester, I was a graduate student in both programs and was the first to complete the joint Ph.D./M.P.H. training that is now a unique selling point of the medical psychology program at UAB.”
At the University of Utah and now at Texas Southwestern, Wiebe has built on that training by contributing noteworthy research to the field, publishing articles in prestigious journals and earning the UAB Department of Psychology’s Distinguished Alumnus Award last year. She and her husband, Stephen, also a professor at Texas Southwestern, are the parents of a nine-year-old daughter, Emma. Wiebe says they enjoy playing with the family dog, two cats, and three chickens, as well as taking part in outdoor activities. Still, work is never far from her thoughts.
“The field changes rapidly with emerging medical technologies,” she says. “It’s sometimes difficult to keep up with the explosion of information that’s available, but it’s never boring.”