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“We broke a few silos at the Mental Health Science Meeting this year”

Urska Kosir is a PhD candidate in Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford. She studies psychological adaptation to cancer in adolescents and young adults, and is herself a cancer survivor.

After attending the Mental Health Science Meeting for the first time this year, she shared her thoughts…


When people ask me what I study, I often feel that I owe some further elaboration, so I usually continue by saying “No, I can’t read minds. I study how people adapt to cancer. Young people, primarily.” Perhaps unsurprisingly this often evokes feelings of uneasiness, to which I urgently respond: “It’s not all that grim!

I’ve always been intrigued by the way our bodies and minds work – if we can even call them separate. During my years overseas where I completed my undergraduate degree in psychology and worked as a research assistant, I spent most of my time studying and researching mental ill health, from mood disorders, to autism and psychosis. In search of the physical location of our mental states, I also spent hours shadowing physicians at the neuro-oncology clinic, catching sight of numerous tumors silently feeding on patients’ energy and courage. 

My own cancer experience has given the work I do a lot of flavour and purpose

To truly gain an insight, I got my own lymph nodes checked, they seemed a bit swollen. Though reassuring that I wasn’t merely hypochondriac, the results that came back were rather unsettling.

From one day to the next I had to quickly switch my gowns – the clinic where I so eagerly examined MRI scans no longer seemed as welcoming when I had to enter it as a patient. 

Too much self-disclosure?  I am never sure! But I feel comfortable talking about my cancer experience and have to admit that it gives the work I do a lot of flavour and purpose. Life with cancer can continue, and I want to help those who struggle to see that. 

How I found out about MQ

I first learned about MQ last year when one of my colleagues won the award for her poster. She told me about the conference and the engaging setting that MQ offers to researchers at all stages in their career. When I saw one of the themes for this year’s meeting – the intersection between physical and mental health – I quickly grabbed the opportunity to present some of my work with people with soft-tissue sarcomas, raise awareness of this rare tumor, and give voice to those who battle this debilitating illness.

The Mental Health Science Meeting was superb. It offered a platform for meaningful dialogues between academics and allowed for networking (tailored to individuals’ levels of willingness to engage in it). An event that particularly resonated with me was the keynote address by Dr. Michael Ungar who talked about resiliency and our understanding of it, or lack thereof.

I study psychopathology and resilience in adolescents and young adults (AYA) who face cancer and I strive to lay some of the foundation upon which theoretical models of resiliency in this population can be built. However, to echo Dr. Ungar’s points, prior to drawing any firm conclusions, we ought to consider the context in which we conduct our work, as well as think of whom we are studying.

I take the latter to heart. Trying to get a sufficient number of participants (which help us devise those sexy statistical models for top journals), control for all the potential confounding factors, all the while getting a representative sample is not merely a challenge, but close to impossible in the field of AYA psycho-oncology. Nevertheless, I see a way forward. We need not count on the numbers alone (the numbers only work when they carry a story), and we need to continue building bridges across sectors. 

At events where scientists gather to build bridges, I keep hearing the word ‘silos’

Over the past few months I’ve been keeping quite busy, dipping my toes in the policy arena as well. I regularly travel to Brussels where I meet with fellow students and young professionals from across the health care field. We’re a group with a catchy name, the European Health Parliament, and we aim to provide actionable and novel policy recommendations to improve the health of the EU citizens.

But at multiple occasions, be it in Brussels or at the MQ Science Meeting, events where front-runners are gathered to build bridges and broaden our knowledge, they’ve mainly enriched my everyday vocabulary with this word: SILO.

I find it paradoxical. The world is smaller than it ever has been; distances shorter, connections better, and the information travels faster and can reach the most obscure corners, yet I hear silos, I see silos, I work in silos.

But like I said, I am eager, young, and optimistic. We broke a few silos at the MQ Science Meeting this year. And I hope that we continue to do so over the years to come. I also hope to be able to return and see more interdisciplinary researchers presenting their work, without feeling out of place.

If I came back to the Mental Health Science Meeting in 5 years, what differences would I like to see?

Well, I hope that I’ll hear about fewer PhD students suffering from burn-out and severe levels of distress (the inherent irony here makes me cringe). 

And secondly, I hope that mental health is considered less of an island and rather something that pertains to every single one of us. For as long as we remain homo sapiens, we’ll all be homo sentiens who lie on the broad and colorful spectrum, which we call mental health.

To see more from Urska, follow her on Twitter @UrskaKosir.

Last updated: 20 February 2019

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