Tamika Zapolski

Tamika Zapolski

Ph.D. Student

by Saraya Brewer
photos by Tim Collins

When Tamika Zapolski was searching for a doctoral program, University of Kentucky clinical psychology professor Gregory Smith was one of her first interviews. “I had several interviews after that, but I didn’t care about any of them,” she said. “I knew I wanted to study with Dr. Smith.”

When Zapolski arrived at UK in 2005, she was able to put her undergraduate career to use immediately. With a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in black studies & human development and family studies from University of Missouri-Columbia, she was particularly interested in how cultural factors play into the development of eating disorders – as she put it, “what factors were more important for beauty to women and how that then led to dysfunction.”

For example, she explained, thinness may be less valued in the African American culture, which might explain why African Americans develop eating disorders at a disproportionately low rate. With not much research out there about black women and eating disorders, she worked on putting together a sample of college-aged African American women to further examine her theory of cultural influences on eating disorders.

Zapolski is still collecting data for that study, and since then Smith has allowed her the opportunity to be involved in a number of other research projects looking into the factors that influence high-risk behaviors, an area in which he specializes. Impulsive behavior, and how it can lead to risky behavior such as alcoholism, illegal drug use, eating disorders and risky sexual behavior, has been at the forefront of much of Zapolski and Smith’s research.

For her Master’s thesis, Zapolski studied the relationship between positive urgency, drug use and risky sexual behavior. Negative urgency – which can be described as a tendency to react rashly to a negative mood or emotion – is often cited as a factor in such risky behaviors, but the role that positive urgency (reacting rashly to a positive mood or emotion) plays in the risk process, as Zapolski points out, is often overlooked.

She hypothesized that positive urgency would be particularly important to study among college students, who are relishing their independence for the first time, and at the same time often find themselves in situations where risky behaviors are more normalized. Using a sample of UK Psychology 100 students and measures of impulsivity previously developed by Smith, Zapolski conducted a longitudinal study designed to predict increases in risky sexual behavior and illegal drug use over the course of the first year of college, finding that the tendency to act rashly when experiencing extremely positive affect indeed predicted increases in illegal drug use and risky sexual behavior.

To Zapolski, the next step was to see how early the personality traits that are likely to lead to risky behavior could be traced. “If you can assess it as early as possible, then maybe you can intervene and teach skills to adolescents before it gets to the point where they have access to drugs and alcohol,” she said. Working with a group of 9-12 year-olds and their parents, Zapolski found that impulsivity traits were indeed traceable to this age group.

Using a child behavior checklist, risky behavior checklist, and mood based questionnaire, the researchers found that children high on the emotion-based traits engaged in more aggressive behavior and emotion-based, risky behavior.

The low-conscientiousness trait – lack of perseverance related to attention problems and poor academic performance; and those measuring high on the sensation seeking were more likely to endorse actions such as jumping out of trees and enjoying skiing fast down a mountain slope.

“The next step – how do we intervene with these children,” Zapolski said. “And that’s what I’m doing right now.” She has developed an intervention based on various studies on how to deal with anger problems and borderline personality disorder (a mood-based disorder), and adjusted it to make it age appropriate for children.

So far, the children seem to be enjoying the treatments, which include identifying negative emotions at their onset and dealing with them through various techniques that include deep breathing, stress balls, and other relaxation methods, “at a level where they can understand it and they can apply it.”

Zapolski, who ultimately wants to continue research in her field as a profession, has had several opportunities to apply the research she has done at UK in a number of different settings, including the Harris clinic (which is run by University of Kentucky clinical psychology students), as well as the Chrysalis House and the Hope Center (both substance abuse treatment facilities for women).

Currently, Zapolski is in the early stages of a study she would like to continue long term – a developmental trajectory study on African Americans and alcoholism. She hopes to look at the different social constructs and sub-sets within the African American community, a population which has historically been under-researched in regard to alcoholism, and generalized as a static population when it is studied in this context.

“I love the fact that it’s an area that hasn’t had a lot of research, so whatever I do now is only going to add to what’s known,” she said. “There are so many holes and so many areas to look at that are definitely in my future.”