Research Lab for the Study of the Consequences of Trauma Exposure

Buttercup: You mock my pain.
Man in Black: Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.  (The Princess Bride, 1987)

In life, while pain is unavoidable, I believe that psychological suffering is avoidable to a far greater extent. My research program is focused on the ambitious goal of reducing psychological suffering, particularly following exposure to potentially traumatic events. 

 For example, I am interested in the notion that altering how people respond to their negative private events after exposure to traumatic events may provide a mechanism for reducing risk for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Following trauma exposure, it is extremely common for people to experience distressing reactions such as intrusive memories and physiological arousal, but only approximately 30% develop diagnosable PTSD.  What distinguishes the majority of people who demonstrate minimal-impact resilience to traumatic events from those who experience persistent distress?  I am interested in the premise that when people respond to their own negative private events (e.g., thoughts, feelings, body sensations) with inflexibility and avoidance, they experience an increased risk of developing PTSD.

Experiential avoidance, a term that was introduced in the later 1990’s by Steve Hayes and colleagues, refers to a person’s inability or unwillingness to remain in contact with negative private events, such as thoughts, memories, feelings, and physiological reactions, and the actions taken to avoid contact with these events.  Experiential acceptance refers to a person’s ability to maintain contact, without judgment, with negative private events.  Constructs such as forgiveness, mindfulness, and self-compassion, on the other hand, are considered experientially accepting and flexible responses.   I am particularly interested in whether experientially avoiding and accepting responses operate as risk and protective factors for outcomes following exposure to traumatic events.

Sexual revictimization (i.e., women who have been sexually abused as children are at higher risk of being sexual assaulted as adults) is a robust and highly unfortunate phenomenon.  Although those who perpetrate sexual assault are responsible for the assault, given that sexual revictimization is costly on a societal and personal level, I am interested in factors, such as using alcohol or sex to reduce negative affect, that may increase women’s risk of being sexual assaulted as adults.  The combination of using both alcohol and sex to reduce negative affect may be particularly risky in terms of vulnerability to sexual assault, regardless of previous victimization history. 

Recently, we have been examining fear physiology (e.g., laboratory fear potentiated startle to a fear conditioned cue, fear discrimination and fear extinction, as well as dark enhanced startle) as a risk factor for posttraumatic stress symptoms.   

Current Graduate Students in the CTE Lab


CTE Lab graduate students October 2014

Front row (left to right): Sara Himmerich, Derrecka Boykin, Caitlin Pinciotti

Back row (left to right): Susan Hannan, Lynsey Miron, Antonia Seligowski

susan Susan Hannan: I am a fifth year graduate student in the clinical psychology program at NIU.  I am from Cleveland, OH, and I received my B.A. in psychology from Kent State University.  My research interests broadly include risk and resiliency factors related to psychological outcomes (e.g., PTSD) following trauma exposure.  Specifically, I am keenly interested in the role that emotion dysregulation may play in the development and/or maintenance of psychological outcomes following a potentially traumatic event.  For my dissertation I am assessing emotion regulation choice (i.e., cognitive reappraisal vs. distraction) in undergraduate students with low and high levels of PTSD symptoms.  In my free time I enjoy running, traveling, and spending time with friends and family.

lynseyLynsey Miron: I’m a fifth year student in Dr. Orcutt’s lab. I’m originally from St. Croix Falls, WI and received my B.A. in psychology from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. I am interested in mindfulness-based treatment approaches and their components, including mindfulness meditation, self-compassion, acceptance, and psychological flexibility. Specifically, I am interested in how these and other factors influence individual outcomes following trauma exposure, including childhood abuse and sexual assault. For my dissertation, I am exploring how individuals’ attitudes toward self-compassion (e.g., being either receptive or fearful of self-compassion) may influence the utility of meditation practice by measuring participants’ physiological response (e.g., heart rate variability, facial EMG) to a compassion-focused meditation. I am also interested in whether other variables (e.g., trauma history, personality features) contribute to differences in responding, with the goal of identifying those who may benefit most from compassion-focused interventions. My non-psychology interests include hiking, canoeing, binge-worthy TV, and good coffee.

derrecka Derrecka Boykin: I am currently a fourth year student in the clinical psychology program.  I was born and raised in Smalltown, Indiana and graduated with a B.S. in psychology from University of Pittsburgh.  Following graduation, I participated in Pitt's Hot Metal Bridge Fellowship program where I gained invaluable educational and research skills that have contributed to my graduate school success.  I am broadly interested in understanding cognitive and behavioral factors that contribute to trauma-related disorders, improving treatment-seeking among trauma victims, and evaluating trauma assessment instruments and research methodology.  In my spare time, I like to spend time with my family, travel, create DIY projects, and watch tv/movies.

antonia Antonia Seligowski: I am a third year student in the Clinical Psychology program at NIU. I’m originally from Auburn, MA, and I received my B.A. in psychology from Boston University. After graduation, I worked as a research assistant at UMASS Medical School in Worcester, MA and at the National Center for PTSD in Boston, MA. My research interests are related to risk and maintaining factors for PTSD, such as biological phenomena and emotion regulatory processes. My thesis project examined the structure of emotion regulation using confirmatory factor analysis. I am currently working on a project that will explore neurological correlates and predictors (i.e., event-related brain potentials) of the fear-potentiated startle response. I am particularly interested in these relations among trauma-exposed individuals. Outside of the program, I enjoy cooking, ballroom dancing, swimming, and spending time with friends and family.

sara Sara Himmerich: I am currently a first-year student in the clinical program at NIU.  I am originally from Byron, MN and received my B.A. in psychology and Asian Studies from St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN.  Prior to coming to NIU, I lived in San Diego, CA, where I received an M.A. in psychology from San Diego State University and also worked in PTSD research at the San Diego VA Medical Center.  I am broadly interested in the relationship between PTSD and substance use disorders, as well as the unique mental health issues Veterans face as they return to school.  Outside of the program I enjoy spending time with my family and friends, traveling, hiking, and cooking.

caitlin Caitlin Pinciotti: I am a first year student in Dr. Orcutt’s lab.  I am from Cleveland, Ohio, and received my B.S. in Psychology from Xavier University and my M.A. in Clinical Psychology from Cleveland State University.  Most recently, I worked at the Margaret Blenkner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and worked, among other things, on a study looking at veterans with coexisting PTSD and dementia.  My research interests broadly include sexual assault and PTSD and I have recently studied the psychological impact of formal self-defense training on female survivors of sexual assault.  In my free time, I enjoy traveling, playing softball, and cheering on my Cleveland sports teams.

CTE Lab in Action


Frequently Asked Questions from Prospective Students (as compiled by Dr. Orcutt's graduate students)

1. What is Dr. Orcutt's mentoring style and what is it like working with her?

Dr. Orcutt always seems to have our individual goals in mind and makes her graduate students a priority. She always makes herself available if you need to meet with her about your thesis, dissertation, or a side project. She encourages students to generate their own ideas regarding thesis and dissertation topics, though she certainly guides students in the right direction in terms of project feasibility. Dr. Orcutt is timely with feedback and responses to questions, which is very helpful in a busy grad school environment. Overall, she is highly supportive, helpful, and honest.

2. How would you describe the working environment of the Orcutt lab?

The environment of the Orcutt lab is collegial – people get along well and enjoy one another’s company. The lab as a whole has a strong work ethic and is productive, though we try not to take ourselves too seriously. The lab is supportive and accessible, and generally includes several undergraduate research assistants. Dr. Orcutt and graduate students meet bi-weekly for lab meetings, but often participate more regularly in research-related meetings and events, such as the Trauma Journal Club, Anxiety Research Topics meetings, and presentations held at the Center for the Study of Family Violence and Sexual Assault.  Students are also willing to help each other with various tasks and projects and collaborate on research projects frequently.  

3. What kind of research opportunities are available in the Orcutt lab? 

There are a lot of research opportunities available for those that are interested. Dr. Orcutt is not restrictive in terms of writing manuscripts or collecting research data, though she does keep her students’ long-term goals in mind and will direct (or redirect) students accordingly. There is an abundance of data available for students to utilize, including longitudinal and physiological data. Students frequently work on research projects in addition to their thesis or dissertation. Lab members regularly present research findings at national and international conferences, as well as publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. There is plenty of data for students to explore, as well as opportunities to contribute to ongoing projects.

4. What kind of clinical training opportunities are available at NIU?

The clinical training opportunities at NIU are varied. The Psychological Services Center (PSC) is the graduate training clinic where students are exposed to a variety of cases from the university as well as the broader community. There is also an opportunity for advanced students to work with clients in the Trauma Services Clinic, a specialty clinic located in the PSC that focuses on providing assessments and empirically supported treatment for PTSD. In addition to in-house clinical training, graduate students have the opportunity to gain other clinical experiences while on externship, including placements focused on the treatment of children and adolescents, undergraduate and graduate students, older adults, and individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. Some students also choose to seek out unpaid clinical training experiences in hospital and medical center settings following faculty-approval.

5. What is it like living in the area near NIU?

The cost of living in the DeKalb/Sycamore area is very affordable and many students enjoy being able to live in a quiet area while in graduate school. While there are not the entertainment options that you would find in a larger city, the DeKalb area has everything you need and everything else is easily within driving distance. All of the basic amenities are available in the area (there are numerous dining and retail options), and when students need a boost of city life, Chicago and the suburbs are easily accessible.  If students come to the program with a partner who will be working, there are many opportunities in Chicago and the suburbs if you don’t mind a drive into campus (under an hour if coming from the suburbs), though many students prefer to live closer to campus.

Deep Thoughts from Dr. Orcutt 

The student who will be most happy and successful under my mentorship is aware of his or her needs in order to meet goals and is able to communicate those needs directly to me (e.g., “I would like to meet with you this week about a few things” or “it will help me if we can break down this task into multiple due dates”).  We have a busy, active lab and I rely a great deal on more senior students to mentor junior students on a variety of things (e.g., demonstrating how to run a SEM model in Mplus).  Students are expected to develop their own ideas (and collect/obtain their own data) for theses and dissertations under the large umbrella of topics that I am interested in and feel competent to supervise.  Over the years, I have become increasingly heavy-handed with regard to feasibility issues in order to save my students from overly-ambitious projects that will delay their progress in completing the program in a timely fashion. 

My goal is to provide honest feedback that will help my students develop as professionals.  When students send me drafts, I expect this work to be well-written, grammatically correct, and in the appropriate format.  I may edit these drafts with comments such as “this sentence seems awkward” (or even just a scribbled “AWK”) and “not following the argument here,” just as I expect my colleagues (and students) to do with my work.   This is the type of critical conversation that forms the groundwork for academic psychology and moves our field forward.  Successful students are likely to accept this feedback as helpful and necessary for personal growth. Someone who is not seeking critical feedback on their writing or other training experiences may not be the best fit for my mentorship model.

Finally, I HIGHLY VALUE a collegial and cooperative environment among my graduate students.   I have been lucky enough to have numerous graduate students that have been an absolute privilege and honor to train. I look forward to many more.

Undergraduate Opportunities for Engaged Learning

Credit and non-credit opportunities are available most semesters.  Please contact for information.

                 Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day at NIU 2010

Undergraduate Research Day 2010

Undergraduate Research Day 2010

Current Graduate Students

  • Susan Hannan
  • Lynsey Miron
  • Derrecka Boykin
  • Antonia Seligowski 
  • Sara Himmerich
  • Caitlin Pinciotti

Previous Graduate Students

  • Holly Harris
  • Marilyn Garcia
  • Scott Pickett
  • Nicolette Howells
  • Brooke Pope Kurby
  • Madhavi Reddy
  • Mandy Kumpula
  • Ruth Varkovitzky (honorary lab member)
  • David Call
  • Joe Bardeen

Undergraduate Opportunities

Psyc 485 for credit,
non-credit also available