ALUMNI PROFILE: Zac Imel
Graduate evaluates therapist effectiveness to improve the overall patient experience, therapy outcomes
Zac Imel (Ph.D. ’09) was brought to UW-Madison by a book.
“I read Bruce Wampold’s book The Great Psychotherapy Debate while I was a master’s student at the University of Missouri. The book really affected me and I knew I wanted to work with him. I applied to come to UW-Madison to do that.”
Thus began the journey that has ultimately led Zac to the University of Utah, where he is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Psychology department, researching what qualities make effective therapists effective.
But despite getting accepted into UW-Madison and getting his wish to work with scholar he hoped would become a mentor, Zac’s road to the research that so intrigued him was anything but easy.
“It wasn’t until the second year that I really got wind in my sails. It was little rough before that. Bruce’s research is very stat heavy. I needed to get up to speed, so my first few years involved taking a lot of stats classes.”
Once the sails filled, though, his research career took off. While at UW-Madison, he worked directly with Dr. Wampold, focusing on several meta-analyses of differences in the effectiveness of psychotherapies, and on whether the quality of the therapist impacted the effectiveness of the therapy. Their work together ultimately has shown that it does.
Since graduating, Zac’s research has used his work with Dr. Wampold as a jumping off point, studying what things make a good therapist effective and how to use this knowledge to improve the overall patient experience and therapy outcome. His current work is focused on pairing traditional program evaluation strategies with tools built on theory emerging from the basic science of emotion. The work is an extension of things he learned as part of the Emotions Training Program at UW-Madison.
“My colleagues and I are attempting to translate basic theories of emotion and empathy—for example, how your sadness might trigger an emotional reaction in me—and connecting them to the evaluation of therapists and patient outcomes. This science hasn’t really penetrated psychotherapy yet, but we have some interesting preliminary data indicating that the coordination of therapist and patient emotional arousal is related to observer ratings of empathy. Building on these findings, we’ve submitted an NIH grant to try and automate the evaluation of therapist empathy. We hope to create a system that will use machine learning techniques, voice recognition techniques and other identifiers to provide feedback to therapists on how a session might have gone. Right now this sort of feedback is rarely available to therapists working in the community.”
Zac is clear that his time at the School of Education—and the research he did with Bruce Wampold especially—will always remain a major factor in his success.
“It’s hard to put into words how great it was. Working with Bruce was just like working with a really smart colleague. He and I worked together closely a lot. Honestly, I hadn’t fully applied myself before I got to UW-Madison and the Counseling Psychology department. Working on Bruce’s research changed that.”