Undergraduate Student Shares Insights at Professional Psychology Conference

Naomi Lester, PhD, and James McDonald alongside their research poster.

A recent graduate in possession of a freshly minted Bachelor of Science With a Major in Health Psychology, James McDonald is happy to share what it was about Bastyr University that drew him here initially.

It was important to him that the study of spirituality was included in a health psychology program, and at Bastyr he found the interconnectedness of body, mind and spirit woven into the very mission of the University, which suggests the three are “intrinsically inseparable.”

“Health psychology is a very established area of study,” he explains. “There are official American Psychological Association guidelines, and lots of programs. But at Bastyr there’s an emphasis on spirituality in combination with research, and a study of spirituality that’s grounded in strong science — which is not often something you can find.”

He wanted to be part of a health psychology program that would enable him to one day be both a “warm-hearted practitioner and also a good scientist.”

It seemed straightforward to McDonald that “our biology, psychology, and our social network are all connected,” and that each affects our health and wellness not in isolation, but in interconnected ways. Achieving a whole picture of health means looking at how body, mind and spirit are related, and McDonald points to the importance of developing a series of “lenses” through which to look.

He explains that throughout his coursework he learned how to not only use a psychology lens, but also a biology lens, and a social or spiritual lens. “For example,” he says, “understanding that a psychological concept such as stress can affect the body's immune system and that social support can be very effective in coping with stress, underscores the relevance of examining health through multiple lenses.”

These concepts appeared throughout McDonald’s studies, and also informed his senior research project with faculty research mentor Naomi Lester, PhD, entitled “Spirituality in Naturopathic Primary Care.” Dr. Lester encouraged him to share their project at an upcoming conference and so McDonald began securing the financial support that would make attending the 95th Annual Western Psychological Association (WPA) Conference a reality.

Student Venture Grants

Bastyr University’s Student Council and the Office of Student Affairs offer many resources for students, including grants that help current students advance their professional development and research. McDonald decided to apply for one of the Student Venture Grants, which are intended to promote enrichment opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students through domestic or international travel.    

Once a student receives a Venture Grant, they are expected to act as a professional representative of the University and to share what they’ve learned upon their return. Which is exactly what James McDonald did when he got back from the WPA conference in Nevada this spring.

Unexpected Leadership Opportunities

“Attending a professional conference is a great opportunity to see what the field looks like outside of your own sphere,” says McDonald. “Traveling always pushes you in a different direction, and leads to reactive learning, where you’re in an environment where you can share knowledge with other people and be inspired by one another.”

But one of the biggest, and perhaps more unexpected things that he gleaned from the experience was a greater sense of leadership.

McDonald says, “I was surprised to find at the conference that more than a few people were unfamiliar with naturopathic medicine," and he soon found himself challenged to assume more of a leadership role than he might have initially anticipated. As he spoke with people from the western US about the role of spirituality in naturopathic primary care, he ended up conducting a whole lot of education about what naturopathic primary care is.

He is aware of the importance of that interaction: “If I am someone’s first experience of explaining what naturopathic medicine means, there’s a lot of responsibility in that. Because the paradigm of holistic health isn’t as widely known, being educated at Bastyr you end up being a leader, whether that’s what you intended or not.”

“Talking with people about issues involving the mind, body and spirit also involves a lot of trust and respect,” he says. Luckily, he found that his research training and his solid scientific background helped in interactions around these topics with the peers and mentors he spoke with at the conference.

“Being objective, and being able to point to science and data really helps to frame conversations. I kept returning to the Bastyr vantage point that we bring, because even though Bastyr has such high regard for the whole picture and holistic methodologies, we’re also really focused on clinically-relevant and scientifically valid outcomes, measuring things in consistent and reliable ways, and proper use of the scientific method.”

This progressive idea, of combining the scientific method with a sense of spirituality and heart, is one of the many characteristics that makes James McDonald and other Bastyr graduates so uniquely poised to help enable healing in the field of health psychology — and beyond.