As Golfo Tzilos Wernette, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Family Medicine, gained her training as a clinical psychology researcher and practitioner, she found herself in many healthcare settings that brought her close to vulnerable populations, many of whom were experiencing mental health challenges, sexual and physical violence, and substance use issues.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and supportiveness of various mentors, she became passionate about understanding the underlying reasons why these individuals experienced situations and conditions detrimental to their overall health and finding ways she could help.
“I became very fascinated by addiction and understanding how some people could quit a substance and how some people couldn’t,” she said.
Tzilos Wernette began pursuing research areas that examined the intersection of psychology and health among vulnerable populations, including pre- and post-natal women, young women and youth emerging into adulthood.
This work ultimately led to one of her first publications, “Trajectories of adolescent emotional and cognitive development: effects of sex and risk for drug use,” published in 2004 in the Annals of the New York Academies of Science.
This paper was the first step on a career driven not only by a deep desire to know more about adverse health events by conducting research, but to use that research-driven knowledge to help her patients live healthier lives.
“Ultimately, within research, it can be a long road, from designing a study and creating interventions and recruiting patients,” she said. “There are components (of research studies) that we can start using clinically.”
Her current research focuses on brief, technology-delivered interventions for health promotion and risk reduction; preventive interventions targeting alcohol/drug use, HIV/STI risk, and intimate partner violence in vulnerable groups; as well as reducing health risk behaviors among emerging adults and women.
“As a clinical researcher, it is very exciting that technology is ubiquitous,” she said. “Patients can access the same tools we’re using (as researchers). We can disseminate our technological tools widely, making them equal to all.”
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In addition to her tenured professorship in Family Medicine at the University of Michigan, Tzilos Wernette is also an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry. She practices clinical psychology at the Ypsilanti Health Center where she provides short-term psychological intervention to adults in the community seeking primary care services.
She finds her work within the Department of Family Medicine especially fulfilling, as it enables her to work with mentors, health care providers and researchers who touch on many aspects of health.
“It’s a very rich environment and I love being part of a multidisciplinary team,” she said. “I really value being able to connect with others and being challenged by their perspectives.”
The research and motivational interviewing skills she has developed throughout her career have allowed her to create a swift and meaningful connection with patients in the family medicine setting, helping them draw upon their own resources to make beneficial behavior changes.
“I chose this field because I believe that it's my calling,” she added “I find it very rewarding to connect with others in meaningful ways, helping them to overcome obstacles in their lives. I enjoy working with all patients, and I especially have a heart for those who are struggling with substance use disorders.”
Tzilos Wernette’s clinical practice in Ypsilanti informs the research she conducts within the Department of Family Medicine, and vice versa.
“My research interests are really fueled by my clinical interests,” she said. “It’s those same patients that I enjoy working with clinically that I enjoy researching about.”
Some of Tzilos Wernette’s recent publications include a clinical study titled, “An Open Trial to Test Participant Satisfaction With and Feasibility of a Computerized Intervention for Women Veterans With Sexual Trauma Histories Seeking Primary Care Treatment” and a multi-site, randomized trial titled “Computerized intervention for reducing intimate partner victimization for perinatal women seeking mental health treatment.”