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Paula Schnurr, PhD, has been appointed to head the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) National Center for PTSD. The appointment has been met with support and goodwill from within the VA and civilian sector, and from the international trauma community.

Dr. Patti Resick, a former Director of the Women’s Division of the National Center, past president of ISTSS and current professor at Duke University stated, “Paula is always spot on. Her high standards for conducting randomized controlled trials have raised the bar internationally.”

Dr. Barbara Rothbaum, a professor at Emory University and a past president of ISTSS, stated, “Paula knows everybody in the field, across the globe, and considers it part of her job to connect folks and help make things happen. I am so proud of her, and proud to call her my good friend.”

Dr. Ulrich Schnyder, a professor at Zurich University and a past president of both ESTSS and ISTSS, said, “Paula stands for both continuity and innovation. She knows the trauma field and its major players extremely well. She understands that trauma is a global (public mental health) issue. With her outstanding social skills she keeps connecting people; and with her sharp mind, she keeps thinking outside the box, and coming up with new ideas.”

Dr. Miranda Olff, current ISTSS president and professor at the University of Amsterdam said, “Paula is a wonderful example of strong leadership, very sharp and in touch with the world. She is very inspiring to many of us!”

Paula is known for being a pillar of scientific integrity, with razor sharp methodological abilities. A fierce advocate for veteran’s mental health, she possesses a deep understanding of leadership and how to motivate people to produce their best work. She is a trailblazer for other professional women in many ways, including being the first woman appointed as a professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School (now the Geisel School of Medicine).

Paula grew up in Albany and Clifton Park, New York. She attended the State University of New York at Buffalo for her undergraduate work and Dartmouth College for her doctoral work.

The following interview with Dr. Schnurr provides a glimpse into the future hopes for the National Center, its relationship with ISTSS and the international trauma community, and important lessons for early career trauma professionals.

The National Center for PTSD recently celebrated its 25th Anniversary. In that time, it has been a leader in research and education and has helped those living with PTSD. And you were there serving as Deputy Executive Director of the Center since 1989. What do you see as your greatest accomplishments at the Center?

The National Center functions as a team, so it is hard to point out specific accomplishments that are mine. Matt Friedman’s leadership was crucial, as was the leadership of Jessica Hamblen in the Executive Division and of the Division Directors. Collectively, our greatest accomplishment is that we have raised awareness and understanding of trauma and PTSD.

When the National Center started, PTSD was still a controversial diagnosis. At the time, some critics questioned whether PTSD was a “real” disorder, or merely a reflection of problems that had existed in a person prior to their experience of a traumatic event. What were the strengths you drew upon to go against this tide?

Evidence, collected through good science, synthesized by thoughtful writing and disseminated through publications and the web.

What do you see as the most significant areas of future development for the Center and what is your greatest wish in taking over the reigns?

The National Center has come such a long way, as has ISTSS in promoting knowledge about PTSD around the world. We also have come a long way in learning how to treat PTSD so it need not be something people live with, or cope with, for an entire lifetime. I’d like to see our treatments get even better, and more effective for more people. And I’d like to develop a better understanding of how to predict and prevent PTSD.

Your leadership efforts cannot be understated. In addition to all you have done to help the National Center grow and flourish, you have been very active in the leadership of ISTSS, serving as its president in 2003-2004 and as the editor of their flagship Journal of Traumatic Stress (JTS) from 2006 to 2010. In fact, one of your major initiatives while at the helm of JTS was to increase its visibility by increasing and impact factor. What is it about your personal and professional skills that always lead you to be at the forefront of positive and strategic change?  

I am very proud of what I was able to accomplish as editor of JTS, and grateful to Dean Kilpatrick, who appointed me as statistical editor and then deputy editor during his term as editor. However, in terms of my accomplishments in ISTSS, I think I am most proud of being able to help finalize the Society’s policies regarding relationships with other societies. When I joined the Board of Directors in 1999 there was good will to make this happen, but things were stuck despite the efforts of many talented people. When I became president in 2003, I made international relationships my primary issue and kept the focus on it throughout my leadership. I also wisely appointed Danny Kaloupek and Erik De Soir to lead the International Structure and Affiliations Committee. They were a force to be reckoned with and were essential to what was accomplished.

I’ve been successful, I think, because I am lucky to have vision and the ability to focus. And I prefer working collaboratively with others, while supporting and empowering them. Being able to collaborate with the extraordinary people in the National Center and ISTSS has been key and rewarding.

The relationship between the National Center and ISTSS is very strong. What are your hopes for future collaborations? And what are your hopes for the National Center and its relationship with the international trauma community?

People from the National Center have been a part of ISTSS from its very beginning. Matt Friedman and Terry Keane were early presidents and Board members, with many following them into leadership roles. This is still true today. I hope we always remain active in ISTSS. It is my professional home and home to many of the National Center staff.

Thank you for serving as a leader, a friend, and a mentor to so many of us in the traumatic stress arena. Your brilliance and integrity has helped to illuminate and lead our field.