Interview with Dr. Kasia Uzieblo*
Student Section Editors
Maria Aparcero, Student President | Fordham University, USA
Sarah Schaaf, Student President Elect | Fairleigh Dickinson University, USA
Silvia Fraga, Student Secretary | Royal Holloway University of London, UK
Kasia Uzieblo is a senior researcher at the Forensic Care Specialists (Van der Hoeven Clinic, The Netherlands). Her main research interests are psychopathy, sexual and domestic violence, and forensic psychological assessment. As a visiting professor, she teaches Forensic Psychology at Ghent University and Criminological Psychology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). She serves as an expert witness and conducts psychological evaluations at the Van der Hoeven Clinic, a high-security, forensic psychiatric clinic. She is the founder and coordinator of the Forensic Division of the Flemish Association of Clinical Psychologists. She also served as the president of the Dutch Chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers (NL-ATSA). At present, Kasia functions as the secretary for the Society for the Scientific Study of Psychopathy (SSSP). She has published and presented her research nationally and internationally and organized many training sessions in her areas of expertise.
Q: Can you tell us about how you became interested in the field of forensic psychology?
Dr. Uzieblo: I think it all started with my fascination for World War II and the X-files. Given that my Polish family had suffered horrific ordeals during WWII, I was eager to learn more about what had happened back then. So, I began reading books about WWII at a very young age. I was mainly intrigued by questions, such as “Why are people capable of committing such gruesome acts?” and “Are all of us able to commit such crimes?” At the time, I didn’t realize that there were jobs that directly focused on these questions. However, this changed when X-files aired on TV. I was fascinated by the careers of the protagonists which primarily focused on the investigation of the criminal mind and I became really interested in pursuing a career that would allow me to do so as well. This was how I found my way into (forensic) psychology.
Q: Can you tell us about your past/current research and professional activities?
Dr. Uzieblo: After obtaining my master’s degree in Clinical Psychology, I received funding for a research project on emotional processing in psychopathy at Ghent University (Belgium). I remember being very excited about this opportunity. However, at the time, I wasn’t fully aware of all the responsibilities that come with overseeing a Doctoral Dissertation project. Maybe that’s why becoming a PhD student and working on this project had such a great impact on me. Suddenly, I was expected to know everything about conducting research, from setting up experimental studies to analyzing data and presenting the results. As a clinical psychologist, I had never received proper training in conducting research. It felt like jumping into a deep swimming pool without arm floaties. This was a very challenging period for me, but I really enjoyed it and was very disappointed when I didn’t receive funding for my post-doctoral project on interpersonal behavior in psychopathy. Instead, I was assigned to a research project that examined the underlying mechanisms of addiction, but I quickly learned that this was not my cup of tea; I really wanted to focus on topics that were more closely related to forensic psychology.
When I started as a lecturer at the Lessius university college in Antwerp that is now Thomas More, I got very lucky. The head of the department gave me a lot of freedom to explore new things and I was encouraged to set up a 2-year postgraduate course in forensic psychological assessment and counseling, in addition to conducting research and organizing trainings in the field. This was an amazing opportunity to broaden my perspective and professional network. It was then, that I also started to focus on other topics, such as partner violence, sexual violence, and vulnerable suspects. However, after working at Thomas More for about 10 years, I was ready for a new challenge. I wanted to become more experienced in forensic practice and gain more clinical insights into offenders, knowing that it would inform my research. I was fortunate to be offered a job as senior researcher at a Dutch forensic psychiatric hospital, the Van der Hoeven clinic.
Q: How did you become interested in academia? Do you have any tips on balancing commitments?
Dr. Uzieblo: Well, going into academia wasn’t really a conscious decision. During my PhD project, I realized that conducting research was an ideal way to satisfy my curiosity about topics related to forensic psychology. However, I don’t actually see myself as a true academic, but rather as a mediator between practice and theory. Back then, I noticed that there was a large gap between academia and practice in forensic psychology and psychiatry in Belgium. Relevant empirical findings were not reaching clinicians and research in my field was often not relevant or directly translatable into practice. That made me wonder how we could bridge the gap between clinical practice and research and disseminate empirical findings more efficiently. This is how I decided to focus more on organizing training opportunities and conferences for practitioners. But by making this choice, I also quickly realized that I had to compromise my research ambitions.
It is not easy to find a balance between all the different tasks. I believe it is very important to identify what you are most passionate about and set feasible goals for yourself without comparing yourself too much to others. Everybody’s career path is unique. As long as you believe in the added value of your work, whether it’s teaching, conducting research, and/or organizing conferences, your work has the potential to make a difference in the field.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your career?
Dr. Uzieblo: I’m lucky to enjoy most aspects of my career. I think I mostly appreciate the variety of tasks and the freedom to start new projects. I also really appreciate the intellectual challenges, and opportunities to network and learn from colleagues around the world. It’s really energizing to see that you can plant seeds through your work, even if it’s just small seeds.
Q: Could you share a few important moments in your career that ultimately shaped you as a woman in science, and in forensic psychology in particular?
Dr. Uzieblo: Both the highs and lows have shaped me throughout the years. I think my PhD-project was a true eye-opener. It was challenging to work in an environment that expects so much of you and where positive reinforcement is relatively scarce. This really influenced my self-image and self-esteem for some time. Academia is a fascinating world, but it can also be harsh and callous. However, it is a good learning experience. For instance, it made me realize that it is important to never give up, and that opportunities shouldn’t be taken for granted. I also think it’s important to have people in your work environment (i.e., head of department, mentors) that believe in you, encourage you, and acknowledge your work and efforts. It’s so much more stimulating to have a team that you can trust and rely on, that allows you to succeed and fail; people you can share your highs and lows with. And indeed, although times have changed, being a woman in science remains a challenge. It’s my experience that women must shout louder and put their feet down more often just to be heard compared to men. You have to be very stubborn to succeed in science, and even more so as a woman, but that’s probably the case in many other professions as well.
It’s important to have people in your work environment that believe in you, encourage you, and acknowledge your work and efforts.
Q: Before you started as a senior researcher, you founded a postgraduate course on applied forensic psychology in Belgium. What moved you to take on this challenge and how do you think the program impacts the current state of forensic psychology in Belgium?
Dr. Uzieblo: I think my own frustration about the lack of opportunities to study forensic psychology motivated me to take on this challenge. Back then, topics related to forensic psychology only received little, if any, attention in psychology programs in Flanders; and unfortunately, this is still the case. Consequently, people who wanted to specialize in this field, only had very few options: 1) attending a postgraduate course that mainly focused on forensic psychiatry and tended to neglect psychological theories and practice, 2) moving abroad to study forensic psychology, or 3) gaining insights through clinical practice. I strongly believed we could do a better job in providing psychology students and clinicians the necessary tools and theoretical insights to optimize their forensic psychological work. Hence, when I had the opportunity to establish a postgraduate course, I didn’t think twice about it. My hope was, and still is, that this course encourages evidence-based practice in Flanders.
Q: In addition to establishing the applied forensic program at Thomas More in Antwerp, you also founded the forensic psychology division at the Flemish organization for clinical psychologists, for which you currently serve as president.
Is this the first time that forensic psychology has been officially recognized in Belgium as a discipline? And what are some of the recent developments in Belgium that are interesting to share with an international audience?
Dr. Uzieblo: To my knowledge, it is. It’s an important step, but there is still work to do. The Flemish Society for Clinical Psychologists has recognized the field now, but we still must convince universities, policy makers and other related fields (e.g., forensic psychiatry, justice) of its importance.
One interesting development is the recent initiative of our new Flemish Minister of Justice and Enforcement. She announced that in order to prevent recidivism, we need proper supervision and treatment for perpetrators. To achieve this goal, she aims to integrate formal risk assessments into the work of our probation officers; she also wants to ensure that all (alleged) perpetrators of partner violence receive proper treatment. However, many questions remain, such as whether she will introduce guidelines for the proper use of risk assessment tools and whether she will emphasize evidence-based practice. In addition, it is not clear how she will ensure enough treatment resources considering the planned budget cuts in our mental healthcare system. Furthermore, the number of psychologists that are properly trained in treating perpetrators is limited. So, I’m very curious to see how this will evolve.
Q: Could you name some of the most pressing challenges for the Belgian government regarding the field of forensic psychology?
Dr. Uzieblo: There are many pressing challenges, but I think the most important one concerns the training of expert witnesses and their recognition by the courts. Anyone can be an expert witness in Belgium. Consequently, many have not been properly trained in forensic psychology or forensic psychological assessment, which is often problematic. For instance, the use of unstructured clinical judgment for predicting recidivism is still very common in court, and I have also seen expert witnesses assessing psychopathic traits solely by using the Rorschach or the MMPI-2. Due to the lack of knowledge and adequate training, these witnesses often unintentionally perpetuate common myths about phenomena, such as sexual violence and psychopathy. They often provide advice that is not evidence-based and can be counterproductive. Over the years, some efforts have been made to improve the quality of expert evaluations, but it is still not enough. We now have a register for expert witnesses, but this doesn’t ensure quality. Obviously, not all expert witnesses are doing a bad job, but the number of flawed assessments that my colleagues and I encounter remains appalling.
Q: Throughout your career, you have organized several conferences to which you invited international experts to Belgium? The beers, chocolates, and waffles perhaps make it a little easier to bring experts to Belgium. How do their visits impact the field in your country?
And they are right, you don’t
get a lot of academic
recognition for organizing educational events. But I consider facilitating evidence-based practice as an important task of scientists.
Dr. Uzieblo: Many colleagues ask me why I organize so many trainings, workshops, and conferences. They often say that in order to boost my CV, I should rather be focusing on writing papers and grant proposals. And they are right, you don’t get a lot of academic recognition for organizing educational events. But I consider facilitating evidence-based practice as an important task of scientists. One of the most effective ways to do this – at least that’s my experience – is to bring scientific experts closer to practitioners. Practitioners often don’t have the time to read the literature and/or don’t have access to scientific journals. New theoretical insights are not being implemented right away, however, they slowly but steadily trickle down into practice. I believe that educational events play an important role initiating these changes.
Q: How do you think international organizations such as IAFMHS can improve forensic services across countries?
Dr. Uzieblo: I think international as well as national organizations, like NL-ATSA, are very important. Thanks to conferences, practitioners get the unique opportunity to catch up with scientific advances and interact with researchers and practitioners from around the world. However, I also believe that organizations could reach out to practice even more. Practitioners in countries like Belgium face many barriers to attend large conferences because they often lack financial resources and time or face a language barrier. Thus, I think we should explore better approaches to tackle these challenges. In addition, I feel that organizations should also take a more active role in reaching out to practitioners, the general public, and policy makers. One way to do this could be to disseminate knowledge through media, for instance, by sharing our professional opinions on ineffective policies. Another common remark I hear is that conferences or societies are too research-focused or too focused on research that is not easily translatable into practice. Hence, I think it’s important that organizations like IAFMHS and researchers in general are more receptive to the experiences and needs of clinicians.
Q: You are currently working in the Netherlands and in Belgium. Could you describe some of the most striking differences in the approach to forensic patients between both countries?
Dr. Uzieblo: There are a few striking differences. In contrast to Belgium, the Netherlands invests more resources into the training of their professionals and provides them with evidence-based tools for practice. In addition, the development and implementation of evidence-based guidelines for forensic practice is more strongly encouraged in the Netherlands than in Belgium. In Belgium, programs and tools are being developed, but there is almost no interest in evaluating their effectiveness. In the Netherlands, both policy and practice seem to value and stimulate research on the effectiveness of assessment tools and therapeutic programs much more than in Belgium. However, by working in both countries, I also realized that the grass is not always greener on the other side. Despite the many problems in Belgium, it is not all bad. For instance, psychological assessments are more enshrined in our prisons than they are in the Netherlands. I find working in these two countries very enriching. And I hope I’ll be able to bring the best of both worlds together in my work.
Q: Psychopathy and sex offending, two of your main research interests, are topics that receive a lot of public and media attention. Have you experienced any challenges communicating research findings on these topics to the public?
Dr. Uzieblo: Yes, I experience many challenges, but I think they are quite common. I’m often facing a lot of myths about psychopathy and sexual violence in the general public, media, among policy makers, and even practitioners. When you try to bring some nuances into the debate, you’re often ignored because nuances are difficult to understand and don’t sell headlines. I’m definitely not an expert in overcoming these challenges, but I believe it’s important that we, as scientists and practitioners, engage in conversations with politicians, the media, and the general public, and continue to disseminate our knowledge until it is heard.
Q: What advice do you have for graduate students or early career professionals who are interested in following your professional footsteps?
Dr. Uzieblo: I always say that it’s important to find out what you are truly passionate about. It’s also crucial to understand that there are many roads that lead to your goals and they can sometimes be bumpy. One advice that has resonated with me since grad school is to seek out opportunities and take them. Don’t take a no for an answer, at least not at first. And most importantly, stay true to yourself and be kind to others. It’s easy to get blinded by ambition and forget about these values.
there are many roads
that lead to your goals and they can sometimes be bumpy
Thank you, Dr. Uzieblo, for taking us along your professional career path and sharing some of your insights and advice with our students!
*This Spotlight interview was published in the 2020 IAFMHS Newsletter, Spring Edition.