While she is graduating with her MA in Clinical Psychology at fall convocation, Aliya McNeil is already working toward her PhD in the same discipline, here at Waterloo. She was recently awarded the Vanier Graduate Scholarship — one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships — to support her doctoral research and work.

The Vanier scholarship is awarded for both the potential of a candidate’s research and their established record of leadership. McNeil’s graduate research is rooted in the intricacies of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), seeking to unveil the complex layers behind the frequent and intrusive thoughts people encounter.

During her master’s research, McNeil uncovered how fear of compassion and anxious or avoidant attachments play a significant role in maintaining OCD. Her ongoing research aims to “better understand how catastrophic appraisals of intrusive thoughts develop and why some people have difficulty de-activating the threat system."

McNeil’s dedication to this area of psychology stems from her observations during her summer clinical practicum in the psychology program, where she had a firsthand view of how OCD affects individuals. “I saw many connections between my research and the lived experiences of people with OCD,” she says. These real-life applications underline the potential impact of her studies, ensuring her work goes beyond academia.

Setting the stage for doctoral studies

“Aliya’s research addresses the general question of why obsessive-compulsive disorder persists,” adds Dr. Christine Purdon, professor of Clinical Psychology and McNeil’s graduate supervisor. “She has noted that there is a growing body of research which suggests that people with OCD tend to both fear disapproval and have anxious or avoidant attachment.” These findings, which were integral to McNeil’s master’s journey, set the stage for her PhD research.

“A central goal of compulsions is to avoid being held responsible for harm by others,” McNeil explains. “Shame is closely related to attachment insecurity and to fears of receiving compassion. My PhD research will extend this work by examining the role of shame in the development and maintenance of obsessions and compulsions.”

Competing for and winning the Vanier Graduate Scholarship while still a master’s student fueled McNeil’s passion for continuing her research. “Being named a Vanier Scholar was a truly incredible moment,” she shares. McNeil adds that the recognition from the Canadian government strengthened her resolve to unravel the complexities of OCD. She aspires to make her research accessible to both individuals living with OCD and clinicians treating them, aiming to bridge theoretical research and practical applications.

Dedication, passion, and a genuine commitment

Beyond the research and accolades, McNeil’s journey is emblematic of dedication, passion and a genuine commitment to understanding the human psyche. Dr. Purdon aptly summarizes, "Aliya is an outstanding student. Her success stems from her exceptional scholarship, integrity and insight. She has a profound respect for those who may ultimately benefit from her research."

Looking ahead, Aliya sees a career that combines her interests in research and clinical practice. The foundation laid at the University of Waterloo has equipped her with the skills and knowledge she needs to thrive on her chosen path.