October 25, 2007
Jessy Berenguer, a third-year doctoral student in St. John’s
University’s clinical psychology program, was selected by the Society of Multivariate Experimental
(SMEP) to travel this month to Chapel Hill, NC, to
present new findings suggesting that men and women are driven to
high levels of depression for different reasons.
Specifically, Berenguer has discovered that above-average levels of
depression among women are most likely attributable to a perceived
inability to complete a daily workload. For men, says Berenguer,
above-average levels of depression seem to be most often triggered
by sleep deprivation.
Berenguer, 27, from Norfolk, VA, presented her findings at SMEP’s
annual graduate student conference, which kicked off the
organization’s annual meeting this year. The conference was held
October 18 at The Carolina Inn.
SMEP is an organization of researchers interested in multivariate
quantitative methods and their application to substantive problems
in psychology. According to William
, Associate Professor of Psychology and
Berenguer’s adviser, SMEP is composed of “the most highly
recognized quantitatively sophisticated psychologists in the
Each year, only a small handful of graduate students are invited to
the conference by the SMEP student selection committee (composed of
former presenters), says Li Cai, a fifth-year doctoral student at
the University of North Carolina and committee member.
Berenguer is excited about her results: “We’re leaning toward
concluding that [factors] like ‘completing work’ for women, and
sleep for men, are the most helpful in terms of pinpointing what
exactly is contributing to depressive symptoms,” she says.
Other factors that seem to drive women to above-average levels of
depression revolve around decision-making, sadness and
disappointment, says Berenguer. For men, she adds, common
contributing factors are interest in others, appetite and
“The bottom line is that, based on these findings, you can tailor
treatments toward improving depression in different ways based on
gender,” says Berenguer. With males, for example, “You’re not going
to be asking them a lot about crying or sadness. You’re going to
ask them about things like sleep.”
Apart from unveiling these clinical implications, Berenguer’s
findings also signalize an advancement in data analysis. Chaplin,
who is a member of SMEP and an expert in psychometrics, indicates
that Berenguer arrived at her results using a contemporary data
methodology in a way that has never been used before.
The methodology, known as Item Response Theory (IRT), was developed
about five years ago as a way of determining which items on a
questionnaire are most relevant to each of the varying levels of
the behavior or symptom being measured (e.g., depression). For
example, in the case of women, “completing work” is relevant to
“above average” levels of depression, but not necessarily relevant
to mild levels of depression.
Up until now, IRT has only been used by incorporating multiple sets
of parameters within each item, which makes for an “esoteric,
arcane” analysis, “not very intuitive” to the everyday
interpretation of measures, explains Chaplin.
“People who use IRT often look at it and say, ‘Huh?’ ” he says.
“But what Jessy has done is incorporate more standard statistics
like correlations and means and things that most users of
psychometric information know about.’ This, in turn, turns IRT
“into a form where consumers of information can say, ‘OK, I get
“We break it down into a more digestible way of understanding
things,” adds Berenguer. “This method is more user-friendly — not
difficult to understand for people that aren’t as familiar with
quantitative analyses such as IRT.”
According to Cai, it was the combination of Berenguer’s statistical
breakthrough and clinical application to depression that led the
SMEP committee to invite her to the conference.
“We try to find proposals that blend methodological sophistication
with applied focus, and Jessica’s paper obviously fit right into
that,” he says, adding: “Certainly there is a possibility that SMEP
members working with depression inventories will see Jessica’s
lecture and apply her method.”
“The big push these days from funding agencies is, ‘At the end of
the day, how does this matter to me?’ “adds Chaplin. “Jessy has
used IRT to bridge this gap between the foundational scientific
work and relate it to how it might help us understand a phenomena
like depression, and use it to more effectively diagnose and
ultimately help people.”
The irony is that Berenguer, who is mainly interested in clinical
psychology, undertook a statistical study that ultimately — and
unintentionally — generated clinical applications.
The discovery “was definitely interesting and surprising,” says
Berenguer, referring to the findings on depression as “a byproduct”
of her research, adding that she and Chaplin decided to measure
each item by gender “just for grins.”A Very Busy Workweek
Berenguer has worked with Chaplin on various projects since joining
the clinical psychology program three years ago. Chiefly, the two
researchers collaborate at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine’s Seaver and New York
Autism Center of Excellence
in Manhattan, where they analyze
data on impulse control disorders and autism. Chaplin’s role as
Director of the center’s Data Management and Statistics Corp is
funded by a St. John’s grant.
Berenguer spends an additional 16 hours a week engaged in a
University-sponsored externship at Brookdale Hospital
where she provides supervised clinical therapy to both outpatients
and inpatients. She also counsels patients at the University’s Center for Psychological
, which provides psychological services to community
residents and training opportunities to graduate psychology
In the midst of a cluttered workweek, Berenguer somehow finds time
for class. She says she appreciates the demands levied on
third-year doctoral students, noting that the real-world
opportunities existing within the University’s clinical program are
what originally attracted her to St. John’s.
The University “ensures that we receive a very wide variety of
clinical and research opportunities,” she says, adding: “This is
New York City, so the resources are so great and so vast. And St.
John’s does a good job of linking you to many of them.”
For now, Berenguer says is interested in gaining clinical and
research experience in forensics, addiction and personality
psychology. She plans to write her dissertation and publish at
least one paper on the subject of IRT and its clinical applications
to depression, anxiety and anger.