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Noted international researcher incorporates a creative and entrepreneurial spirit in his work

As a grad student, Michael Lambert, Ph.D., was determined he was not going to be a researcher. Even after earning a master’s degree in social work and another in clinical psychology. And especially while pursuing his Ph.D. in clinical and general psychology.

“It was one of the last things on my mind,” recalled Lambert, now a professor at UNC’s School of Social Work. “I really did not want to research anything except for my dissertation, and I didn’t want to teach anybody.”

As a native Jamaican, Lambert had long been interested in the Caribbean, especially in the mental health and well-being of children and adults, which his dissertation explored. Even so, Lambert said it wasn’t until he dug deeper into the material that he realized he could no longer shun a professional path he had been so determined to avoid.

“I got bitten by the research bug,” he said. “The real art of investigating and trying to make data come to life to inform intervention outcomes, as well as policy and practice decisions became attractive to me. And so it was really late in my graduate school career that I decided that maybe a university setting would be the best place to start.”

Nearly 30 years later, Lambert is considered a leading international researcher on the social, behavioral and emotional functioning of children, adults and families, particularly in the Caribbean. Moreover, he has spent much of his career developing culturally appropriate psychological measures and testing tools to help practitioners better identify behavioral and emotional functioning in children, adults, and families internationally, with a more recent focus on children and adults of the African Diaspora.

Somewhere in between all of these accomplishments, Lambert has amassed a scholarly track record worthy of notice. In July, the Association of Black Psychologists selected Lambert to receive its annual Sage Professional Award for the best paper published in the Journal of Black Psychology. Furthermore, according to a recent article in the academic journal, Research on Social Work Practice (RSWP), of all the articles Lambert has published, nine have been cited at least nine times in other literature. Because Lambert’s research has had such an impact on the field of social work, the authors of the RSWP article named him as one of the top 14 African American faculty at the top schools of social work in this country.

The authors noted that these top scholars have succeeded although African American faculty, in general, remain underrepresented in colleges and universities across the United States and “have additional issues to overcome beyond the usual hurdles and challenges confronting other faculty,” including challenges on the nature of their research.

Although humbled by the honor, Lambert said he was surprised that his work has gained such attention given its focus.

“Most people do work within the United States… and much of the work that I do is overseas,” he said. “And so it’s really a very small population of people that would be interested in that work.”

Furthermore, Lambert said that securing funding for his research, which focuses mainly on people of color, has not been easy.

“What that means is that my colleagues and I must find very creative ways to fund our research that are not traditional by any means — including through corporate investment.”

Lambert has also pursued ideas that have market potential, such as the online psychological assessment and screening tools.

Most recently, he has been interested in exploring how people across nations and especially in the Caribbean express potential mental health problems. Although syndromes such as anxiety, bipolar disorder, psychosis or depression, for example, are evident in virtually all sociocultural groups within and across nations, Lambert said, cultural differences might play a role in how those symptoms are manifested.

“As an example, in the Caribbean, people present some of their symptoms through their head,” Lambert explained. “So someone might say, ‘I feel like there’s a beating sensation in my head,’ which is really representative of anxiety. Another person might say, ‘My head is heavy,’ which is really an indication of depression.”

But psychological assessment and screening measures or questionnaires developed in the United States or for European populations might not capture those symptoms, Lambert added. “So that’s an area I really want to look into more—how people in different parts of the world really present their concerns.”

Lambert knows he may face a few more obstacles along the way, including finding funding to support his future projects. He’s undeterred. After all, he’s relied on innovation and determination for the past 30 years, and those ingredients will continue to motivate him and to propel his work, he said.

“Being a scholar of color and especially a black researcher requires a creative and entrepreneurial spirit,” Lambert said. “Although I did not see it as such, I am an entrepreneur, and I will continue to find creative means to support my work on people of the African Diaspora. If we, as scholars of color, do not do such desperately needed studies or create culturally appropriate measures of psychosocial functioning for our people, who will?”