Making it personal
Living with diabetes helped shape UF researcher’s career choices
Sarah Westen, Ph.D., found her professional passions as a doctoral student. Now, she has the opportunity to pursue them in the place where it all started.
Westen, a psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of clinical and health psychology, received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience philosophy from Union College in New York. She furthered her training at the National Institutes of Health and then arrived at the University of Florida in 2012 and entered the Ph.D. program in clinical psychology.
Westen said she wasn’t sure what she wanted to specialize in, but her mentor, David Janicke, Ph.D., ABPP, encouraged her to explore her interests. This support led her to choose to focus on Type 1 diabetes, she said.
“She’s always been incredibly passionate and dedicated to issues of Type 1 diabetes and working with kids who live with Type 1 diabetes and their families,” said Janicke, a professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Profession’s department of clinical and health psychology and director of graduate training.
For Westen, her choice was personal. When she was 14, she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Interested in connecting with others living with the disease, she and her family went to a fundraising walk to support the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, or JDRF. There, she learned about some of the hardships that people with diabetes face. Hearing stories about the stressors associated with living with a chronic illness opened her eyes to the importance of having a strong support system and mental health treatment. It sparked an interest in learning more about health psychology and the psychological effects of living with chronic diseases such as Type 1 diabetes.
During high school, Westen completed an internship in neurobehavioral endocrinology at the University of Rochester and continued to volunteer with JDRF.
Fast forward 15 years to her postdoctoral fellowship at UF, where she once again had the opportunity to work with JDRF. This time, she was one of four national recipients of a JDRF national psychology fellowship award, which funded her postdoctoral training at UF Health.
“I love being able to help people who live with the disease that I live with, and really give back through research and clinical care to turn what could be a personal daily struggle into a positive,” said Westen, a member of the UF Diabetes Institute.
When she first started at UF, she realized the need for Type 1 diabetes psychology. She began to focus on this area with the guidance of Janicke and several mentors in the division of pediatric endocrinology, including Desmond Schatz, M.D., a professor and interim chair of the department of pediatrics in the UF College of Medicine; Michael Haller, M.D., a professor in the department of neurology in the UF College of Medicine and chief of pediatric endocrinology; and Anastasia Albanese-O’Neill, Ph.D., ARNP, CDE, an assistant professor in the UF College of Medicine’s department of pediatrics.
Since then, Westen has led research, provided psychology services in clinics and completed her residency and postdoctoral work, all with a focus on behavioral psychology and chronic illnesses, such as Type 1 diabetes. In 2019, she was hired as a faculty member in the department of clinical and health psychology.
Westen has been educating people about the importance of clinical psychology in diabetes care through the Extension for Community Health Care Outcomes, also known as Project ECHO, which seeks to provide more accessible care and education to underserved patients living with Type 1 diabetes. This program is a collaboration between the UF Diabetes Institute and Stanford University through a grant by The Leona M. & Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.
Westen’s role in Project ECHO is to conduct weekly telehealth meetings with participating primary care physicians to educate them on behavioral health aspects of diabetes management. She also helps with real-time issues that arise in their practices.
Between this project and her new role as director of Diabetes Behavioral Medicine and Psychology, Westen stays busy. She said she’s learned time management and leadership skills from mentors and co-workers, including Kimberly Driscoll, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions’ department of clinical and health psychology and director of behavioral research in the UF Diabetes Institute.
“Watching my mentors and seeing them succeed in helping the patient base and their students while managing research and other endeavors inspired me to want a similar academic medical career,” she said.