In Search of the Purple Unicorn: How a Psychologist Is Translating R&D into Clinical Practice


In Search of the Purple Unicorn: How a Psychologist Is Translating R&D into Clinical Practice

Did you ever read a fantasy book or maybe play a fantasy video game, searching for some elusive magical item such as a purple unicorn? When you start out, you have neither the tools nor the experience needed for success. Later you pick up the magic sword, make friends with some talking forest animals, and learn the secret incantation to open doors that would otherwise remain blocked.

I’ve been on a similar quest for the last four years. I trained as a clinical psychologist and researcher. I’ve worked with kids and families, in hospitals, homes, and clinics, to deliver evidence-based care. I also conducted clinical outcome studies and wrote them up for publications and conferences, and I studied dissemination and implementation science extensively. With Engility, my work is much different than what I originally set out to do when I entered grad school, which creates some very interesting challenges and opportunities.

I now lead a talented team of multidisciplinary experts working to develop an enterprise-wide knowledge translation (KT) infrastructure to bridge the gap between the military’s research and development investments and clinical care. KT is, in essence, a systematic approach to getting evidence-based tools and practices from researchers to clinicians as fast as possible to improve outcomes. The challenges are substantial: there are dozens of complex systems already in place, and they don’t all fit neatly together. The Military Health System is also enormous and global, and there are some pieces that resemble civilian healthcare and other pieces that are unique to the military, like combat medicine and surgical teams operating on ships and in planes.

What’s a psychologist supposed to do with such a complex puzzle? I know that I don’t possess the knowledge or skills needed to reach the goal, but I’m supposed to lead the charge? Luckily, in 2018 Engility is giving me a power boost in the form of a Technical Fellowship. The fellowship program will allow me access to the full range of experts and capabilities across Engility, develop relationships with national and international experts, and gain additional training to provide technical insights into my customer’s needs and to strengthen our corporate playbook while we’re at it. Pretty much, my Frodo just got a visit from Gandalf.

Engility has several strengths that we can apply to address the complexity of the issues I’m facing. We excel at model-based systems engineering, for example, which is extremely helpful in mapping out interconnections among different systems in large organizations. Likewise, our IT experts can turn ideas into real solutions to meet customer needs. In a way, the Tech Fellows program is like being handed a map to reach the purple unicorn; I get to work with experts in other areas, learn from them, and figure how to attack my customer’s needs from multiple angles.

How a Psychologist is Transitioning R&D into Clinical Practice By the end of the year, we hope to stand up a sustainable system of systems that can be used to plan, execute, and manage KT efforts in a coordinated fashion across the Military Health System. As this system of systems becomes fully operational in subsequent years, we expect to improve healthcare outcomes for warfighters and their families, while lowering cost and minimizing the time it takes for innovations to reach the field. With a little luck, lots of hard work, and some new and old friends, I believe we’ll realize our vision.

Opportunities to learn more include the Engility internal Trade Show in March. I also plan to present at the INCOSE Systems Engineering in Healthcare Conference in April.

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Posted by Aaron Sawyer

I am an Engility Technical Fellow with a PhD in Clinical Psychology, MS in Experimental Psychology (Measurement, Evaluation, & Statistics) and a PMP Certification. I have spent more than 15 years in program evaluation and clinical research experience—with 8 years consulting with federal, state, academic, and nonprofit clients. I have spoken at several conferences on the topic of program evaluation and Knowledge Translation.