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Graduate Student Profile - Darby Saxbe (Psychology)

Darby Saxbe At least for some Los Angeles women, a messy house may be even more stressful than a bad marriage. That’s one conclusion graduate student in clinical psychology Darby Saxbe has drawn from the voluminous data gathered by the Center for the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). The center identified 32 middle-class, dual earner households in Los Angeles, then followed members around for three days with video cameras, did interviews, and had them fill out surveys. Oh, and yes, they asked participants to provide four saliva samples every day.

Darby's research is based on spit—or rather on the hormone cortisol, which is found in spit. In her master’s thesis, Darby compared men’s and women’s cortisol profiles to questionnaires they had completed about their marital happiness. While there was no linkage for men, women with the preferred cortisol profile—high right after getting up in the morning, then dropping off steeply—were more likely to report marital satisfaction on the questionnaire. Those with relatively even levels of cortisol across the day—a condition that has been associated with stress—were also reporting unhappy marriages.

The chemistry looks like this. As people wake up in the morning, high levels of cortisol show that the body may be "mustering its resources to tackle the stresses of the day," Darby says, but the body shouldn't stay in that highly activated phase. These results were reported in Health Psychology.

Darby's dissertation builds on that research to see if the cortisol profiles of partners are similar to each other. She found that moods and cortisol levels were more similar in unhappy couples. She concluded that "marital satisfaction may buffer spouses from their partners' negative mood or stress state."

Darby's "clutter" study used camcorder tours that family members were asked to give of their houses at the beginning of the study. Women who described their houses as being more messy or chaotic showed more stress, based on the cortisol results, and "the effect remained significant even when we controlled for marital dissatisfaction," Darby says. Those who used words referring to nature—talking about their backyards, for example—had better cortisol profiles, meaning less stress. Darby is still at work on a piece that will relate cortisol results to the number and kinds of chores family members do around the house.

As she describes it, Darby took "a bit of winding path" to her present occupation. As an undergraduate at Yale University, she was headed for a career as an English professor—until she took a course on Freud as literature. Reading his case studies, she saw "this amazing narrative, this incredible puzzle" relating symptoms to earlier life events. "It was like reading a mystery novel," she says. Darby "had always had in the back of my mind" a possible career in psychotherapy, and she ended up accumulating enough psychology credits for a double major with English.

Then she decided to take some time away from the academy. Darby joined some friends who were developing a website to help college graduates find careers in small companies or nonprofits, then worked for another website that provided support and networking for journalists. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, she thought back to her original plans for graduate school and an academic career: "I thought maybe I should do this sooner rather than later," she says. "It was time to move forward."

Darby used her Web savvy to find Rena Repetti at UCLA, where the Center for Everyday Lives of Families study was just getting under way. While other universities had seen Darby's postgraduate digressions as a liability, "Rena saw them as a strength," Darby says. "She saw me as someone who was more interdisciplinary and who was interested in different types of methods. We really clicked."

During an initial year supported by an Edwin W. Pauley Fellowship, Darby applied for and obtained a National Science Foundation fellowship covering her next three years. As she writes her dissertation, she has support from a Chancellor's Dissertation Year Fellowship, an American Psychological Association award, and the Charles E. and Sue K. Young award.

While all that financial support relieved her of the need to teach, Darby nevertheless did a couple of turns as a teaching assistant and participated in the Psychology Department's summertime Quality of Education Teacher Training Program. It provides an opportunity for select graduate students to create and deliver their own course—in Darby's case, introductory psychology.

With a small class size of 20, Darby made extensive use of student discussions. To make sure they were ready to talk about what they had read—and to get students into class on time—she gave a quiz first thing in every class session. "I thought they were going to hate it," she says, but a midterm survey showed that "pretty much everybody said they preferred doing little quizzes to a couple of big exams."

Her teaching mentor, Professor Carlos Grijalva, says the interactive exercises she developed "kept her students engaged and excited about learning and won their admiration and respect." Some of her suggestions may become part of the standard psychology curriculum, he says. "Her enthusiasm and dedication to teaching are contagious, and I know that she is well on her way to becoming an award-winning scholar and teacher."

First, she must complete a full-time year-long internship required of clinical psychology students, in her case, at the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Sepulveda, which has a family therapy program. Although many students in clinical psychology choose a practice career, however, Darby is hoping to find an academic position.

She'd also like to stay in Southern California, where she and her husband, who works in the music business, have recently bought a house. Darby declined to say whether saliva sampling is part of the household routine, but she acknowledged that her husband "has a sense of humor about the idea that there's going to be a lot of talking about the relationship." She tells him it's good for his health.

Published in Spring 2008, Graduate Quarterly