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The University of Texas at Tyler Magazine, Fall 2009

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BACK TO UT TYLER: Dennis Combs
Serves Alma Mater As Educator, Researcher

Dr. Dennis Combs has been on both sides of the lectern at The University of Texas at Tyler.

The Marshall native first came to the university after finishing his undergraduate studies at East Texas Baptist University in 1993. He entered the master of clinical psychology program at UT Tyler, where faculty members including his thesis advisers, Drs. Ronald Livingston, Shelly Marmion and Kevin Ford, added fuel to his aspiration to become a professor and researcher.

The 1996 UT Tyler graduate returned to the university in 2007, this time as an assistant professor and licensed clinical psychologist. Teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses, he’s sharing his passion for psychology with students and involving them in leading-edge research and community service.

Dr. Combs has garnered international attention for his research not only in schizophrenia but also in clinical and nonclinical paranoia. In just the past year, “CBS News,’’ “U.S. News and World Report’’ and the Associated Press have interviewed the professor about his paranoia research.

Paranoia is a hot topic now because the condition is believed to be on the rise worldwide. Dr. Combs established and directs the UT Tyler Psychotic Disorders Research Laboratory, one of just a few research labs across the globe doing paranoia research.

This year, the professor received the UT Tyler President’s Scholarly Achievement Award and the National Register of Health Service Providers’ Judy E. Hall, Ph.D., Early Career Psychologist Award. The Hall Award recognizes excellence in a nationally credentialed psychologist with less than 10 years of postdoctoral experience. Dr. Combs completed his doctorate degree in clinical psychology at Louisiana State University in 2002.

He also was appointed as a J. Burns Brown Fellow for 2009-10 in recognition of his scholarly and teaching achievements.

“Dr. Combs is a very strong researcher and scholar,’’ said Dr. Charles Barké, chair of UT Tyler’s Department of Psychology and Counseling. “He now has a national and even international reputation among scholars in the area of schizophrenia, and his research is on the cutting-edge.’’

The most important aspect of the professor’s research is “its potential value to people who suffer from severe mental illness like schizophrenia. He is working on ways to offer treatments for people with schizophrenia to improve their lives,’’ Dr. Barké said.

“And he has fit in well with our faculty culture of involving students in his research at multiple levels and in multiple ways. It is invaluable for undergraduates as well as graduate students in psychology and counseling to have the opportunity to work with him on these important studies.’’

Dr. Combs also is an excellent teacher, the department chair noted. “He has been a very strong classroom teacher for us. Students appreciate his teaching and do well in his classes.’’

Prior to joining the UT Tyler faculty, Dr. Combs served as an assistant professor for five years at the University of Tulsa, where he established a strong record of teaching and scholarship, said Dr. William Geiger, dean of UT Tyler’s College of Education and Psychology.

“We were very fortunate to recruit Dr. Combs to UT Tyler,’’ Dr. Geiger said. “He’s an alumnus, he knew some of the faculty; and the Department of Psychology and Counseling has very strong faculty. I believe those are factors that made returning to the area attractive to him. And Dr. Combs has certainly contributed to the strength and quality of the faculty through his teaching and scholarship.’’

A Promise Fulfilled

Along with the opportunity to return to his alma mater, moving back allowed Dr. Combs to fulfill a promise he made to his wife, Melissa, also an East Texas native and UT Tyler graduate. She holds a bachelor of business administration degree and is a certified public accountant. The couple has two sons, Zachary, 3, and Mason, 8.

“I made a promise to my wife that if there ever was an opportunity to move back, I would consider it. And I believe our coming back to East Texas and my return to UT Tyler was meant to be,’’ the professor said.

Dr. Combs teaches courses in abnormal psychology, clinical psychology, personality assessment and advanced psychopathology. And he involves both undergraduate and graduate students in the work of the UT Tyler Psychotic Disorders Research Laboratory.

After returning to Tyler, Dr. Combs also set up a clinic at the Andrews Center, a Tyler-based nonprofit mental health center serving East Texas. The clinic offers testing, consultation, therapy and counseling services for all types of mental health issues as a free service to the community and a means for graduate students to fulfill their practicum requirements under the professor’s supervision.

The professor said he enjoys teaching students to be researchers and use their knowledge to help persons with mental disorders.

“It’s really nice to have students get excited about research. They work on studies that I’m doing, so they get to see how research is done professionally for a career. And in our research lab, we have meetings where students bring their ideas and we talk about projects they want to do. I tell them they can feel free to explore their ideas in the lab and I’ll be happy to work with them on it. And to see a student come up with a project and run it and then actually get published is really nice.’’

Invaluable Guidance

Dr. Combs’ lab manager and longest tenured student research assistant, Dustin Chapman said the professor has helped him prepare for success on the doctoral level.

After completing UT Tyler’s undergraduate program in psychology in 2007, Chapman began graduate studies with the ultimate goal to become a clinical psychologist, professor and researcher.

His first semester in the master of clinical psychology program was Dr. Combs’ first semester on the faculty. The student took the professor’s advanced psychopathology course that semester.

“Dr. Combs’ expectations were pretty high, but he seemed extremely confident that we would be able to meet them,’’ Chapman said, noting that the professor taught on the doctoral level at Tulsa.

“Some of us did get A’s, but it was a very hard class. It was the first time in a long time that a class had really pushed me beyond being comfortable. I had to work hard to be successful and that was really exciting for me,’’ said Chapman, adding that he enjoys a challenge.

And when Chapman asked what else he should do, besides making good grades, to improve his chances of getting into doctoral school, Dr. Combs simply replied, “ ‘You should be doing research … Go to the lab and we’ll get you started,’ ’’ the student recalled of his introduction to research.

Chapman has been heavily involved in the work of the lab while also pursuing his own research interests and working on his thesis. He began his practicum at the Andrews Center in the summer and plans to complete his graduate courses in December.

This fall, he’ll also apply to doctoral school – with confidence.

“The opportunity to do research with Dr. Combs has given me a realistic perspective not only of what it will take to get accepted into a doctoral program but also what will be required for success on the doctoral level,’’ the student said. “That has been invaluable.’’


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