Rebecca Pearl – Research Spotlight

Congratulations to Rebecca Pearl, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, and a 2022 recipient of the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award. Part of the NIH Common Fund’s High-Risk, High-Reward Program, this award supports “exceptionally creative early career investigators who propose innovative, high-impact projects in the biomedical, behavioral, or social sciences.” Dr. Pearl will receive $1.5 million in direct costs over 5 years for her project, titled “Transdiagnostic Intervention to Reduce Internalized Health-Related Stigma.”

Dr. Pearl received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Yale University and completed her predoctoral internship at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) Center for Weight and Eating Disorders before joining the Penn faculty as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and Surgery. She joined the faculty at UF in 2020.

Dr. Pearl’s research has primarily focused on understanding and reducing social stigma due to body weight. Individuals with obesity face negative judgment, bullying, discrimination, and overall mistreatment from family members, peers, employers, healthcare professionals, and strangers. This societal stigma can become internalized, such that persons with obesity “self-stigmatize” by putting themselves down and believing that they have lower value as human beings, simply because of their weight. People who internalize weight stigma report poorer mental health, less engagement in health-promoting behaviors, and impaired quality of life, yet little is known about how to reduce weight stigma and its related suffering. With a K23 Award from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the NIH, Dr. Pearl has been conducting a randomized controlled trial of a novel group psychological intervention designed to reduce weight self-stigma and its negative health impacts among patients with obesity. In addition, she recently received an R03 Award from NHBLI to investigate whether internalizing weight stigma is a form of chronic stress that affects inflammation and metabolic health, beyond the effects of obesity.

Dr. Pearl has also extended this research by collaborating with health professionals to conduct studies of stigma due to other aspects of appearance and health, such as skin disease, aging, and facial differences. Through this work, she observed commonalities across different forms of health-related stigma – including high levels of self-blame and shame, social isolation, and universal negative impacts on disease management, mental health, and quality of life. Her new NIH-funded project will bridge knowledge across health fields to develop a psychological intervention for internalized stigma that is generalizable to adults with a broad range of stigmatized chronic health conditions, including obesity, diabetes, chronic pain, HIV, skin diseases, and cancers. By creating and testing an evidence-based “transdiagnostic” intervention, this work aims to enhance dissemination of psychosocial support for stigma across medical specialties and, ultimately, improve patient quality of life.