"How can we study feelings between partners in a laboratory situation?"

Interview with Beate Ditzen, psychologist at the University of Zurich

4.9.2013 | Dr. Beate Ditzen, senior research associate at the psychology faculty in Zurich, talks about partner interaction and wound healing, the importance of mentors in research – and about her dream project.
AcademiaNet: When did you decide to make a career of your research?

Dr. Beate Ditzen: This was a gradual development. During my diploma project, I realised that I enjoyed research a lot more than anything else I had done during various internships. When I wrote my doctoral thesis, it became increasingly clear that research really fascinated me and that I wanted to continue doing it.

If you would describe your work to a class of schoolchildren, which aspects would you emphasise?

I personally enjoy it very much to break down complex patterns of thinking and behaviour into a study design that can be tested in a controlled experimental set-up. In my opinion, this is the most challenging part of psychological research, but also the most gratifying one. And I also enjoy the balancing act between the necessary simplification of a research idea in the context of a laboratory study on the one hand, and the transferability of the results into everyday situations on the other hand. To give you one example: How can we study feelings of closeness and commitment between partners in a laboratory situation? How can you manipulate test persons in a standardised way, in order to measure the relevant factors, including biological factors?
Dr. Beate Ditzen
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(© Frank Brüderli)

Dr. Beate Ditzen

Besides working in clinical research, you are also a licensed psychotherapist. Are you a practising therapist?

Yes, as a board-certified psychotherapist in cognitive behavioural therapy, I have regular patient consultations. In fact, for me this is the link between my research topics and my clinical practice. Through my patients I realise the potential as well as the difficulties of my research for psychotherapy. One example: We know from several studies that a good social support system – a network of friends or family members – has a positive impact on a person's health, and even on his or her survival. But if we try to prescribe a "dose" of social support, this is by no means an easy intervention, and the effects are by far not as positive as the effects of a naturally developed support system would be. So you can see: It is anything but simple to deduce an intervening strategy from a known psychological factor!

You are currently working on a study of the effects of the hormone oxytocin on wound healing and partner interaction. Could you please explain this study design?

In the past, studies have shown how partner interaction affects the immune system and wound healing, and furthermore, how the neuropeptide oxytocin influences partner interaction. In a next step, we assumed that oxytocin might firstly improve partner interaction and secondly might help wound healing. The couples participating in this study get a small wound at the university dermatology clinic here in Zurich. The subsequent week, they use nasal sprays with either oxytocin or a placebo and are interviewed several times per day about their partner interaction via iPod. At the end of the week, the healing process of their small wounds is evaluated.

What are the results of this experiment?

In the brain, oxytocin is a natural neurotransmitter, in the rest of the body, it is an important natural hormone. If oxytocin, in conjunction with partner interaction, would indeed have a positive effect on wound healing – this result would mean the discovery of a crucial mechanism how partner interaction affects our health on a biological level.

One of your specialities are the psychosocial implications of gynaecological disorders. What are the main topics here?

I deal mainly with gynaecological diseases, often involving chronic pain, changes in body weight or body image, as well as infertility. These implications can have severe negative effects on all social relations of the affected women. We have just started a study on how to tackle these negative side effects, so I cannot present any results yet.

Have you had a mentor, or do you still have one?

Yes, I even have several! First of all my doctoral advisor, he is now in Freiburg, Germany. Then my advisor during my postdoctoral research in the USA, she is now in Berlin. Last but not least my current boss here in Zurich. I received crucial input on my research from all of them, and I still do. But I have also gotten excellent advice from established scientists I have not cooperated with directly: Sometimes all it took was a short discussion of some research question of mine, sometimes it was enough to put me in touch with another specialist.

If you could dream up a project, what would that project be?

My dream project would be a comprehensive study of the psychobiological factors that contribute to the positive effects of close partner relationships on our health. We would expect those effects to differ according to the stage of a relationship: In early stages, people are very fixated on their partner and the partner's presence is very rewarding, almost like a drug. At the same time, these early stages are not characterised by stress reduction. In later stages of a relationship, the presence of one's partner clearly reduces stress – but simultaneously, the drug-like quality decreases. These almost universal stages are mediated by biological, often hormonal mechanisms. I would really like to manipulate and study these mechanisms.

Does the University of Zurich have special programmes for female researchers?

Yes. I would like to point out the postdoc programme I took part in. Over two years, this was a fixed group of female researchers, and I benefited greatly from the discussions with the other junior researchers about our next research and career steps.

In the evenings, how do you unwind? How do manage to leave your work at the office?

Actually, this is an important point. In my line of work, I have great degrees of freedom – the result could be that I worked from early morning until late at night. I could easily think round-the-clock about my current projects and future projects, or I could brood over manuscripts that were rejected or analyses that don't work out. I am lucky inasmuch as my husband works in a completely different field and discussions with him help me greatly to shift my focus away from my own work for a couple of hours. I also find it reassuring to see how any research usually takes much longer than anticipated – so what's the rush? And I like the slight chaos that is part of any research process – in fact, it can be quite relieving and stress-reducing.

Dear Dr. Ditzen, thank you very much for this interesting interview.

Interview: Stephanie Hanel
English version: Susanne Dambeck   (© AcademiaNet)

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