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Faculty Fellow Profile: Desiree Murray

desiree murray

Faculty Fellow Profile: Desiree Murray

November 9, 2023

After taking her first psychology class in high school, Desiree Murray, PhD, knew that a career as a psychologist was in her future. Before becoming a faculty fellow at the UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) and senior research scientist at the UNC Center of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, Murray served as the associate director for research at FPG. Prior to that time, she spent nearly two decades in the Department of Psychiatry at Duke, with particular expertise in ADHD. Her desire to move toward prevention and community- and school-based interventions prompted her to join UNC in 2014, where prevention science provides the framework for her research.

Murray leads the UPSIDE (Understanding and Promoting Self-Regulation Intervention across Development) Team, an interdisciplinary research group that develops, implements, and evaluates self-regulation interventions that promote resilience for children and youth from early childhood through young adulthood, especially focusing on youth who face chronic adversity. One of the team’s main interventions is Be CALM (Cool, Attentive, Logical, and Mature,) a mindfulness-based social-emotional learning for middle and high school students designed to promote stress resilience. In addition to providing a student curriculum, the program trains educators to practice mindfulness in interactions with students to create safe and supportive school environments. Murray is committed to creating ways for caring adults—including teachers, educators, coaches, mentors, and families—to provide ‘co-regulation’ supports for adolescents. She says that youths’ developmental contexts may be more important than the skills instruction.

While many schools offer social/emotional learning programming, there is a gap in targeted interventions for adolescents who need additional support but not necessarily individual mental health therapy. Thanks to a $2 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences that started in January of this year, Murray and her team are addressing this gap by adapting the Be CALM program for middle school counselors to utilize with students experiencing high levels of stress.

With this grant funding, Murray and colleagues in the School of Education are collecting counselor and student input ‘from the front end,’ doing focus groups to understand school constraints and barriers that prevent students from talking to their school counselor or attending a counseling group. Murray says that by paying attention to implementation, the team hopes to create a program that is feasible as well as impactful.

“Self-regulation is the foundational construct for all of my work in terms of understanding emotion regulation processes and how we can develop more effective interventions,” says Murray. “While I'm a clinical psychologist, my strongest professional identity is as a prevention scientist.”

Murray began integrating mindfulness into programming about six years ago based upon what the research said. During the early 2010s, while doing a literature review for the Administration for Children and Families on preventive interventions, she noticed that there was a large gap in the effectiveness of programs for adolescents. Wanting to do something about this, she noted that the areas with the fewest studies were emotion regulation and stress management. She believed that mindfulness held promise, even though it was a fairly new area with regard to scientific study. After working with mindfulness experts to develop the Be CALM program and incorporating the practice into her own life, Murray learned first-hand how mindfulness can help develop self-regulation and build emotional wellbeing from the ‘inside-out.’  Having attended myriad trainings, she now leads mindfulness practices for her program. In addition, she earned a yoga teacher certification last year because of her desire to move deeper into the mind-body connection.

“Self-regulation is the foundational construct for all of my work in terms of understanding emotion regulation processes and how we can develop more effective interventions,” says Murray. “While I'm a clinical psychologist, my strongest professional identity is as a prevention scientist.” Her work goes beyond intervention and the translational work that informs intervention to explore mechanisms related to stress with the goal of optimizing interventions.

Having invested a lot in FPG throughout her career, Murray is excited to serve as a faculty fellow and to reconnect with FPG Interim Director Brian Boyd, PhD. Affirming her belief in FPG’s potential, she looks forward to continued and new collaborations with Institute research scientists. She noted that FPG Advanced Research Scientist Laura Kuhn, PhD has been invaluable to her work for nearly a decade and that FPG’s National Implementation Research Network has greatly informed her own implementation work. She brings expertise in mental health to her role as co-chair of FPG’s strategic planning committee on mental health and developmental disabilities.

During Murray’s previous time at FPG, she says that there were various groups of people interested in social emotional learning. “In our current time—with the youth mental health crisis and CDC reports about this—I see this as an area of potential for FPG,” she says. “I would love to be part of that, if that is something that makes sense for FPG to grow in the future.”