Stronger Communities Through Research: Q&A With Phylicia Fitzpatrick Fleming, PhD, New Diversity Fellow

Feb 27 2019

Stronger Communities Through Research: Q&A With Phylicia Fitzpatrick Fleming, PhD, New Diversity Fellow

As part of a three-part Q&A series on Cornerstone, we’re introducing new members of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia research community. The Postdoctoral Fellowship for Academic Diversity supports our belief that innovation is enhanced when a diverse group of researchers from a variety of backgrounds, disciplines, and perspectives contribute to solutions.  In this series, we’re learning more about our newest Diversity Fellows through their own voices, taking us on a journey from where their research paths began to their favorite pastimes.

Our second featured fellow, Phylicia Fitzpatrick Fleming, PhD, joined CHOP after a journey of education and service that led her to clinical research in child and adolescent psychology. Grounded in family who provided a foundation of solid life skills, Dr. Fleming pursued her goals of using research to benefit underserved communities.

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity?

I was born and raised in Ruleville, Miss., a small town in the rural Mississippi Delta, by my mother and grandmother. I spent many years following these two women around and absorbing from them as much as I could. My mother had a way of making work seem like the most fun thing you could ever do, and my grandmother taught me to always have a plan and a backup plan. Many of their lessons got me through high school.

After high school, I enrolled at Tougaloo College, a small, historically black college in central Mississippi where I majored in psychology. As a member of the honors program at Tougaloo, I found myself a part of a group that was not only interested in learning, but also deeply invested in community involvement and making the most of the college experience. It was at Tougaloo that my commitment to research and working with underserved communities blossomed.

Upon graduating from Tougaloo, I completed two years of AmeriCorps with City Year Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Health Corps, then I obtained a master’s in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. I had a great mentor at NYU, Dr. Howard Friedman, who encouraged me to pursue a doctorate in school psychology as a way of tying together my interests in child mental health and working with underserved communities. After NYU, completing a PhD at the University of North Carolina, I was decidedly committed to working with underserved populations and immediately went to work as a school psychologist in public schools. However, after one year of full-time clinical work in schools, I realized that I could likely reach more children and have a more meaningful impact overall through clinical research.

With that in mind, I joined the team of Dr. Thomas Power here at CHOP as a research postdoctoral fellow on a federally funded grant evaluating the effectiveness of an organizational skills training intervention delivered in schools (OST-S). Once at CHOP, I applied for the Postdoctoral Research Fellowship for Academic Diversity because I wanted to develop an independent project related to the implementation of the OST-S intervention in under-resourced, multiply-stressed schools. It is my hope that by developing a more independent research agenda while still receiving mentorship, I can develop skills that will make me more competitive for research faculty positions in the future. 

What does diversity in research and science mean to you?

Diversity in research and science means including the full spectrum of human perspectives. For me, diversity means seeing scientists and researchers who look like me or from other underrepresented groups doing meaningful work, leading teams, and inspiring others. I also think it moves beyond just representation or people with different backgrounds in a room, to creating scientific environments where different perspectives are appreciated and encouraged. That is how innovative ideas, scientific questions, and creative solutions emerge.

What are some research projects that you’re excited about?

I am particularly excited about the work my team is doing on the OST-S project. I came to CHOP to develop skills in school-based behavioral health research, and this project has allowed me to see that work, from study startup to follow-up data collection. We are in 18 schools this year, with schools in either active intervention, waitlist, or follow-up. Because of my interest in underserved populations, I have been working with the most multiply-stressed schools in the active intervention condition, supporting their school staff in implementing the OST-S intervention. As the school year progresses, I look forward to seeing how these schools adapt and implement the intervention to meet the needs of their students. I also enjoy any opportunity to work with schools to support their students.

In addition, my study, which is an ancillary study to the larger OST-S project, is well underway. The study focuses on the ways in which school-level factors may influence the implementation of the OST-S intervention. We have already received data from most of our schools on school-level factors, so I am excited to start analyzing the data and characterizing our sample of schools. This work affords me the opportunity to interact with more schools and communities and gain a better understanding of how interventions are implemented in diverse schools.

What inspired you to focus on child and adolescent psychology in early education? What do you aim to achieve with your research?

I have always been interested in working with underserved communities, especially around mental and behavioral health. However, before that conversation with my mentor at NYU, I never considered school psychology as an option for meeting the mental health needs of underserved communities. He really set the wheels in motion for me pursuing school-based mental health research. I see school-based work as a way improve access to evidence-based interventions for underserved populations. Through my research, I hope to understand and reduce disparities in access to evidence-based behavioral health interventions and disparities in implementation of high quality interventions in school settings. I hope to gain insights about barriers to and promoters of successful implementation of interventions in schools so that future interventions are accessible and contextually appropriate for underserved communities. Ultimately, I hope to use research to bridge the gap between health systems, where many interventions are developed, and the communities they serve to reduce behavioral health disparities for underserved populations.

When you’re not working, do you have a favorite pastime, spot to relax, enjoy a meal, or be active?

I like to curl up on my couch with a good book. I really like African-American fiction writers and recently finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing Unburied Sing. I love her work, and she’s from Mississippi, so that’s always a plus. I keep a running list of books that I would like to get to if I ever have the time. I also like watching TV, particularly crime shows, and have been known to lose an entire day binge watching a show.