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PURE Award winners 2016: Tamara Williamson, BSc

Psychology major to look at how motivational, psychological, social and behavioral characteristics impact weight loss outcomes

Tamara Williamson is studying emotion and impulse control and their association with weight loss outcomes six months after bariatric surgery. Photo by Nikki Reimer, University of Calgary

By Jennifer Robitaille
September 14, 2016

The University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategic statement reads “students will thrive in programs made rich by research and hands-on experiences.” The integration of teaching and research is a priority in this vision and the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience — also known as PURE — is an important initiative that reflects this commitment.

Each year undergraduates can apply for the prestigious PURE Awards, which provide financial research support to some of the university’s most promising students over the spring and summer months.

The program is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to develop research projects, undertake independent research and contribute to knowledge in their respective fields.

In this Q&A series, we hear from the 2016 PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts.

Name: Tamara Williamson, BSc       

Degree sought: BA, Psychology

What is your research topic?

I’m working on a prospective study investigating psychosocial predictors of weight loss and quality of life changes following bariatric surgery (i.e., weight loss surgery). We’re looking at how various motivational, psychological, social, and behavioral patient characteristics impact weight loss outcomes at six months and 12 months post-surgery. This summer, I’ll be looking at two of these variables in particular (emotion and impulse control) and their association with weight loss outcomes six months after surgery.

What attracted you to this particular research project?

I took a Health Psychology class this past fall and was immediately interested in specializing in this area of Psychology. Bariatric research (study of the causes and treatment of obesity) is particularly interesting to me, as I’ve always felt compassion toward individuals who struggle with their weight and related comorbidities. Obesity is a complex, poorly understood disease and the condition is terribly stigmatized in our culture. Bariatric surgery has been shown to be an excellent option for achieving permanent weight loss, and I was excited to learn about the psychosocial processes involved in both the development of the disease and patient recovery following surgery.

Why is this research important?

The decision to undergo weight loss surgery usually represents a last resort for individuals who have been struggling with obesity and related health problems for a very long time. Although bariatric surgery is the most effective treatment for obesity in the long-term, quite a large proportion (10-20%) of patients either do not lose a significant amount of weight, or regain lost weight in the long-term. To achieve their goals and maintain weight loss over time, patients need to implement complex behavior changes. They need to be able to use personal control to avoid the impulse to over-eat and manage their emotions surrounding food. Associations have been reported between impulse control, emotional eating and obesity, but little research has evaluated the impact of these constructs on patient outcomes following surgical weight loss procedures. This research is important so that we can understand these processes better, and ultimately, help patients reach their goals.

What do you hope to achieve with this research? 

This research could have important implications for clinical practice by highlighting the need to assess for, and tailor interventions towards impulse and emotion control. I hope that my findings will help guide patient selection and treatment plans, optimizing surgery outcomes for future patients. On a personal level, I hope to improve my practical skills in clinical research. I’m fortunate to be working with medical professionals and patients at the Calgary Adult Bariatric Specialty Clinic. It is as incredible opportunity to conduct data collection in a multidisciplinary clinical setting and the experience will be invaluable as I continue my studies in clinical psychology.

What do you like most about your field of study?

My favourite thing about Health Psychology is its focus on the relationship between human behavior, health and illness – all topics that are extremely relevant in society today. For the most part, we all KNOW what we SHOULD be doing to stay healthy – avoid smoking, drugs and alcohol, exercise, eat right, and manage our stress – yet these behavioral changes are incredibly difficult for many people to implement. By learning more about the psychological and social processes behind successful behavior change, we can develop better preventative health care and have a real impact on the prevalence of chronic disease.

What advice would you give to other students considering applying for PURE Awards next year?

Definitely put some thought into what you would like to study and choose a topic that is meaningful to you. Work is always easier when you feel inspired. For your application, the best advice that I received was to keep my proposal simple: use regular English, avoid jargon, and really just tell a story about why your research is meaningful to the academic community and to you personally.