Meet Mind-Body Researcher Jenn Altman

Altman is a Psychological and Brain Sciences, Ph.D. student in the Clinical Psychology program. Her research focuses on the clinical application of mindfulness as it relates to the body. Read more about what she is doing in the College of Arts and Sciences as a graduate student.
Meet Mind-Body Researcher Jenn Altman

Department, degree, and expected graduation date 
Psychological and Brain Sciences, Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, August 2018 

Current Research 
The questions that drive my passion for research surround the clinical application of mindfulness as it relates to the body. I am interested in exploring the mechanisms and functional outcomes associated with how an individual relates to their own body and its functioning, as well as how the application of mindfulness influences these associations.  

The focus of my program as a research fellow has been mindfulness and self-compassion as related to affect, intervention, the body and physical activity. More specifically, the focus of my work has been the development of a theoretically-derived scale designed to assess “body compassion.” I derived the body compassion scale (BCS) from the theory and extant literature in body image and self-compassion, and collected initial scale validation study data at two regional universities. I subsequently completed analysis of the psychometric properties and factor structure of the scale, collected validation data in a second sample, and completed confirmatory factor analysis. I just completed data collection for cross-validation of the BCS in a sample of community exercisers, a study for which I also received grant funding. This is the first of a series of planned cross-validation studies.  

My dissertation is a cross-validation of the BCS in women in perimenopause. 

What inspired you to research mindfulness through the lens of psychology and brain sciences? 
Throughout my childhood I found refuge and reward in athletics. Ultimately I attended college on a basketball scholarship. In the course of my athletic career I experienced the highs of maximal physical functioning and the lows of injury. I also observed teammates and opponents ravaged by the impact of eating disorders and of injury. Concurrently, I witnessed the suffering associated with chronic illness, and experienced the eventual loss of family members and friends to disease.  

Experiencing the pain, emotional and physical, as well as the joy that can stem from the constantly changing body, I have always been struck by the impact an individual’s relationship with their body can have on lived experience, particularly in identity and health. The connection between mind and body, which are so often treated as separate entities, is what drew me to clinical health psychology.  

My practice and training in mindfulness meditation, academic degrees in both psychology and kinesiology, as well as my work across setting – including athletics, and health and wellness are reflective of my passion for this connection between mind and body. 

Many people think of mindfulness as a spiritually-based practice and psychology as a physically-based practice. How are the two related, and how does your work make this connection? 
Probably the most cited definition of mindfulness is from Jon Kabat-Zinn who describes it as, "Awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally."  

There are many practices that are designed to cultivate the skill of mindfulness, including many practices found within religious/contemplative/spiritual traditions, although spirituality is not inherent in all mindfulness practices. Broadly speaking psychology is the study of the mind, and mindfulness represents one way to work with the mind. I recently partnered with a physician I met on a meditation retreat to write an article titled, "Beyond mindfulness: Buddha nature and the four postures in psychotherapy."  

After all, returning to the roots of mindfulness, the Buddha began with the body. 

Do you have any key mentors? Tell me about them. 
During my time in the College of Arts & Sciences, I have been incredibly fortunate to work with Dr. Paul Salmon (Psychological & Brain Sciences). In fact, it was his background and interest in mindfulness, as well as in exercise physiology, that drew me to UofL. His lab presented a wonderful opportunity for me to begin exploring mindfulness and the body in more depth. He has been supportive of my process to find a unique line of research within the broad umbrella of “mindfulness.”  

In general, the faculty in A&S have been supportive throughout my development as a scientist-practitioner. It was in Dr. Suzanne Meeks’ (Psychological & Brain Sciences) class that I first conceived of body compassion; Dr. Ben Mast  (Psychological & Brain Sciences) has been generous with his time in helping me think through statistical analyses and the big picture of what’s possible with my research in body compassion; and Dr. Janet Woodruff-Borden (Psychological & Brain Sciences) has been a wonderful clinical mentor, encouraging me in the process of applying body compassion in a clinical setting, as well as in my overall professional development. 

I am grateful for the mentorship I have received from each of the faculty I have worked with during my time in A&S. 

What is the last non-required book you read? What made you pick it up? 
Most of my non-required reading centers around mindfulness and meditation, the most recent book I picked up and am still reading (finding time to read “extra” as a graduate student is challenging!) is Radical Dharma by Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah.  

I have been fortunate to hear Rev. angel Kyodo williams speak and knew I had to pick up Radical Dharma as soon as it was released. She is one of only two black women Zen Senseis and is an incredible voice for social transformation, specifically speaking to racial and structural injustice, and to how personal and social transformation are intertwined.  

My last non-required reading that was not about mindfulness or meditation was Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. It is a beautiful collection of short stories. I picked it up because I love stories that explore the human experience with cultural insight. 

Who or what inspired you to become a scientist? 
I can’t point to any one person or event that inspired me to become a scientist. I have been fortunate throughout my life to have teachers that inspired creativity and curiosity – encouraging my natural inclination to ask questions.  

As an adult I am inspired by the potential of science to alleviate human suffering. 

Advice for girls who would like to enter the male-dominated world of scientific research? 
Be true to your own unique and authentic voice. Acting from a place of authenticity supports confidence, persistence and joy as you progress toward your goals. 

How can people incorporate mindfulness into their everyday lives? 
The rise of technology has surrounded us with gadgets constantly vying for our attention as we “multi-task,” which is technically impossible – our attention can only hold one thing at a time.  

People can start incorporating mindfulness into their everyday lives by doing one thing at a time and paying attention to that activity. So if you go for a walk, just walk. Notice the world around you, from the crunch of leaves under your feet, to the color of the sky and the feel of the air on your skin. All the while your mind may be off and running on your to-do list, replaying an encounter with a colleague, or planning for a future event – all useful and important abilities of the mind, which can take over and run our experience each day by pulling our attention out of the present moment. Each time you notice your mind has pulled you along into thinking, planning, or judging, you can acknowledge your mind’s ability and choose to redirect your attention to the experience of walking (or studying, or eating, or driving, or washing the dishes…you get the idea!), again and again.  

This is simple, but not easy, so be gentle with yourself and see what you discover.