Spotlight on Research
Alessandra Rellini, Ph.D.
I was born and raised in Northern Italy, in the old Roman outpost of Como, better known today for the beauty of its eponymous glacial lake. I came to Cincinatti, Ohio for one year when I was fifteen via a student exchange program (AFS). Among the surprises awaiting me was the different approach to science. In Italy, all our courses were theoretical, and I found myself responding much more to the "hands on" paradigm of the U.S. One year of this, and an exceptionally good host family, and I was hooked. I returned to finish high school in the U.S. and decided to continue my undergraduate education at Whittier College, a small liberal arts college in Southern California.
Graduate Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and Yale Medical School
Dr. Rellini placing a blood pressure cuff on a research assistant, Julia Camuso, to demonstrate how blood pressure data is aquired during the experiemnts
Not quite sure how to use my degree, I spent two years after college working for people with developmental disabilities and then decided to continue a graduate education in Clinical Psychology. I enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the California School of Professional Psychology. It was here that I discovered, albeit tangentially, my passion for research, via my treatment work with trauma survivors at the local VA, and my research assistantship for Dr. Rachel Kimerling at the University of California, San Francisco, helping her with her studies on trauma survivors.
Realizing how fun and rewarding research can be, I decided to move to the University of Texas at Austin, a university that was more research focused and that allowed me to study sexuality. I chose this topic because so much is still unknown in female sexuality. Also, the study of the sexual response requires the simultaneous consideration of both physiological and subjective factors and I have always been fascinated by the way in which mind and body interact.
I worked in Dr. Cindy Meston's Female Sexual Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin for five years where I focused on emotional and physiological responses to sexual stimuli in women with a history of childhood sexual abuse. During this time I also continued my clinical training with trauma survivors. After defending my dissertation, I completed my clinical internship at Yale Medical School where I worked with Dr. Chuck Sanislow and received specialized training in Dialectic Behavioral Therapy by Dr. Seth Axelrod, an approach that has been proven to be efficacious for the treatment of chronic suicidal clients with borderline personality disorder.
A research assistant, Julia Camuso, demonstrates how heart rate and subjective responses to visual and audio stimuli are collected during the study
I have become increasingly more interested in the role of emotions on the sexual response. Our laboratory, the Sexual Heath Research Clinic, specializes in the study of how body and mind respond to sexual stimuli. We use vaginal photo-plethysmography to measure the body's sexual response. Additionally, we measure blood pressure, heart rate, skin conductance and hormonal levels, all measures of physiological responses associated with emotions. We also ask women to complete a battery of questionnaires to tell us what they were thinking and feeling during the study.
Currently, my eight research assistants and I are focusing on the role of emotional responses on physiological sexual arousal. In some of our studies we look at physiological responses to stress and how they affect women's sexual arousal. One of my students is collecting data on hormones during different love stages (lust, passionate love, and attachment love) and how those affect sexual arousal. A second student is testing whether women with greater bodily awareness show greater physiological and subjective sexual responses to sexual stimuli. A third student has just submitted an article to a scientific journal on the sexual self-schemas of women with a history of childhood sexual abuse and is about to begin investigating sexual self-schemas among women with a history of emotional abuse and neglect, and its effect on sexual function.
Our lab is extremely active and we truly enjoy working together. In addition to working hard, we also like to play hard and every semester we have at least one event outside of the laboratory where we can relax and talk in a less formal setting.
I usually have between 1 and 3 graduate students. They tend to be graduate students in Clinical Psychology but I am also eager to find students who are interested in attending the General/Experimental Graduate Program we offer in Psychology. Each of my graduate students carries on an independent line of research that is related to sexual health, from attention to sexual stimuli, to the effects of hormones on sexual desire, and to the effects of infertility on sexual function.
We usually have between 7 and 14 undergraduate students working in the laboratory. The application is a competitive process and students apply the semester before the position opens up. Some of the most advanced undergraduate students with a strong interest in research also begin their own independent line of research. Over the years, we have had students who studied the effects of hormonal contraception on sexual desire, the effects of mood on sexual arousal, the impact of sexual abuse on sexual self-schemas, and more. I teach undergraduate students to write grants and to prepare conference presentations. Occasionally, talented and dedicated students are given the opportunity to co-author a publication or present at a conference.
We also have one or two interns every year. An intern is a Post Baccalaureate student who graduated from UVM or another school and chooses to work in our laboratory to gain experience and build a strong application for graduate school. We have hosted people from Washington, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Montreal. Usually the commitment is a minimum of 8 months and for a minimum of 20 hrs per week. Although, we have noticed that people who are able to commit more hours usually gain more from their experience and are more succesfull in their graduate applications.
Our undergraduate and Post Baccalaureate students have been accepted to top graduate programs in Psychology and other fields. Two of our alumnae were accepted to University of Washington (the number one program in Clinical Psychology in the U.S.)! Other students have been accepted at Columbia University in the Masters in Social Work, and Boston University in the Masters in Public Policy. These are highly competitive placements that the students were able to snatch in part because of the work and experience they received at SHRC. Moreover, after our students have finished their apprenticeship they have a clearer picture about their future career / career options and have formed meaningful friendships that last their lifetime.
If you are an undergraduate student or a Post Baccalaureate interested in gaining experience in the laboratory please complete the application and email it to me directly: email@example.com. You will be contacted to be informed if we can interview you. There are two interviews, one with my graduate students and one with me, plus an information meeting with a current research assistant before you are accepted in the laboratory. If you are a Post Baccalaureate please also submit your CV. If you are a graduate student please first contact me to see if I am accepting a student since I have positions open only every few years.