Elsa Friis, M.S., Ph.D.
Global Health and Psychology '20
Current PositionSenior Director of Research and Development, Alongside
As a licensed psychologist and global public health practitioner, I am passionate about developing novel technology and care models to expand access to mental health support. Many of the skills that I use in my work today were cultivated through my work on my Bass Connections project team.
I joined the Global Mental Health-Integrative Training Program as a graduate student studying global health (M.S.) and clinical psychology (Ph.D.). This program helped me build key skills and connected me with an amazing group of interdisciplinary scholars from across various departments.
This interdisciplinary collaboration led to the idea for a mental health app to support lay counselors providing family therapy in Kenya called Pocket Counselor. As someone who is fondly known by my family as having a unique ability to break any phone or computer I touch, I can truly say I don’t think the idea to develop an app would have been possible without the ability to bring together a diverse group of mentors and team members.
The related Global Mental Health Program project (2017-2018) allowed me to continue to develop Pocket Counselor in partnership with Kenyan counselors and students from both Duke and Moi University (Kenya). The program also provided me opportunities to receive training in human-centered design, an approach and skill not typically taught in clinical psychology programs.
Providing counseling is incredibly difficult and can take a toll on a counselor’s mental health. By developing the app “with counselors” instead of “for counselors,” we were able to ensure we were supporting counselors rather than adding to their stress.
I continued to work on this project under the guidance of my doctoral mentor, Dr. Eve Puffer. We conducted a pilot randomized control trial of Pocket Counselor (my dissertation research), an incredibly ambitious project only made possible through the support of my fellow Bass Connections team members. As the research lead, I gained valuable experience learning how to direct a team and how to provide mentorship to students.
My Bass Connections experience also contributed to my career path in ways I could not have guessed at the time. After finishing my Ph.D. and clinical internship, I worked as a clinical associate at Duke and participated in the From Data Science to Clinical Care: Integrating Caregiver Support for Autistic Children project.
The project is funded by All Babies and Children Thrive (ABC Thrive), a special initiative of Bass Connections. Our work focused on facilitating the use of technology to improve early detection and intervention for children with ADHD and autism. This valuable experience and the connections I made led to an opportunity to continue to focus on early childhood intervention at the start-up Little Otter.
I now work at a mental health startup (Alongside) that is developing an AI-supported chatbot to provide mental health support for students across the country. My interest in the ability for a chatbot to deliver effective preventive care was inspired by one of my Bass Connections mentors, Dr. Eric Green, who has developed a similar product for maternal health care called Nivi.
While technology has changed significantly in the 10 years since Dr. Green introduced me to the idea of how to craft text-based conversations, the principles and challenges remain the same. At Alongside, I am carrying forward the values and ethics I learned through my Bass Connections project to develop a product that focuses on providing equitable access to evidence-based, inclusive and culturally resonant preventive care.
Perhaps the most important skill that Bass Connections helped me develop was the ability to collaborate on an interdisciplinary team. A key aspect of my current job is to liaise between our clinical and engineering/product team and to work with our school implementation team — the people on the ground who are partnering with communities and supporting schools in using the app. Working with my Bass Connections team helped me learn to make connections and to communicate across disciplines and research areas, skills that I use every day in my work.
Clinical psychologists are often pigeonholed when they are seeking jobs outside of providing care or in academia. However, because of Bass Connections, I started my career not only with concrete clinical skills but with highly marketable abilities and experience in research, app development, teamwork and leadership.
These skills and experiences will continue to serve me well throughout my career, and I am incredibly grateful for the professional mentors and network the Bass Connections program helped me establish.