Dr. Francesca Penner joined the psychology department this fall looking to explore and research the difficulties of parenting for people with an addiction or a mental illness. Photo courtesy of Baylor University

By Abby Gan | Staff Writer

Coming all the way from Yale University, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience Dr. Francesca Penner joined the department this fall and is bringing research about parent-child relationships and mental health to Baylor.

Penner said she was looking for an R1 institution, and Baylor’s R1 status, investment in research and focus on undergraduate quality excited her.

Penner said her ultimate hope is to identify ways that parenting might be more difficult for people with addiction or mental illnesses — particularly during the prenatal period and adolescence — and to test interventions.

“[We are] testing ways that we can actually help parents with addiction or psychopathology in terms of their parenting, but also in reducing their mental health symptoms and improving their children’s outcomes as well,” Penner said. “Identifying what’s sort of the barriers for them or … what’s contributing to their mental health difficulties … and then also trying to intervene in those ways.”

Graduate program director Dr. Christine Limbers was the chair of the search committee that was aiming to hire a tenure-track faculty member in the field of clinical health psychology.

Limbers said Penner had a great track record of publishing and was already getting funding for research.

“I think that’s also something we look for in candidates in terms of, you know, will they be able to come to Baylor and have a successful research lab and publish and accrue funding?” Limbers said. “She’s already done some of that, so I think that was another thing that made her a strong candidate.”

Penner’s path to clinical child psychology was an unusual one, she said, because she didn’t major in psychology as an undergraduate student.

“I was actually an English major at [the] University of Chicago, and then my intention was to be a teacher,” Penner said. “I was working with teachers implementing an online math program. I did that for four years, and … through working with teachers and seeing classrooms, I figured out the teaching wasn’t for me, but I did like the aspect that was working with children.”

After exploring more career paths where she could work with children, Penner said she determined she also wanted an analytical aspect to her job with statistics and research.

“I really liked the combination in clinical psychology, where you have work directly with families and children, but then you also have this ability to do research and be empirical and analytical in that way,” Penner said.

While at Vanderbilt University for her master’s degree, Penner said she worked in a lab to conduct a study of family depression.

“The idea was to prevent the children from developing depression because there is a lot of transfer of risk. If parents have depression, there is an increased risk for their children to have depression,” Penner said. “That was really eye-opening for me in terms of understanding family transmission of mental illness and how it’s not just genetic. There’s a huge behavioral component.”

In her postdoctoral studies at Yale University, Penner said she expanded her research to look earlier in the developmental process.

“Understanding parent-child relationships in infancy and even earlier — so beginning in pregnancy, sort of looking at parent mental health across the span of child development, from pregnancy to adolescence — that’s sort of what my area is now,” Penner said.


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