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June 25, 2019

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Score one for UNLV School of Medicine: Professor snags a Fulbright scholarship



Katherine Hertlein will study how relationships are affected by technology at the University of Salzburg in Austria.

UNLV’s new School of Medicine has scored its first triumph. Professor Katherine Hertlein, who studies romantic and family relationships for the school’s psychiatry and behavioral health department, has garnered a Fulbright scholarship, one of the most important academic designations in the U.S. It will enable Hertlein, who also is a therapist, to further develop her studies—specifically, how relationships are affected by technology—at the University of Salzburg in Austria, where she’ll teach two classes and conduct a survey starting in March 2019. The Weekly recently spoke with her about her studies and award.

Explain your research on the intersection of technology and relationships.

I think technology has certain characteristics. For example, it’s very accessible and very affordable. When you communicate through it, it can be ambiguous, it can approximate real-world situations and settings, etc. I’m looking at how these factors and characteristics influence the structure of our relationships, and by that, I mean the roles, rules and boundaries we establish and how they affect the process of the relationships—the way they are initiated, maintained and end.

How long have you focused on this avenue of study?

About 15 years, from my work on my dissertation to now.

Is there specific technology where you focus most?

I actually think different types of technology and new media share [the same] characteristics. There’s apps, Facebook, Instant Messenger, different email. However, they all have the same characteristics, so I look at it more generally.

What has been your most encouraging discovery?

I think it’s the accessibility. So many times, we as therapists give interventions that clients can’t do. Technology makes many of those things [that weren’t] accessible helpful again, including therapy. You can get therapy from a distance … even though many family therapists are allergic to the idea. Accessibility is the No. 1 thing I have a lot of hope for.

Conversely, what negative results has it produced?

People see computers [as] a bad thing. In couple relationships, where one says they’re looking at porn online, the other says, ‘You’re a sex addict,’ and that’s not true. I want to look at why they see it as this overwhelming negative. I don’t see why people are afraid of computers. Just because they are involved, they think it’s a more dangerous thing. There’s more opportunity for change.

Do you look for the potential therapeutic benefits in technology?

Absolutely. I think if we assume all technology is bad, we’ll have some real problems. You can’t live in this world without technology, and that will be certainly be true in the future. It will be more advantageous if we say technology can complicate relationships and it can facilitate relationships—and that can be therapeutic.

Does that include virtual and augmented reality?

Absolutely. I’m doing a conference presentation on this in October, and that is part of where we’re headed. People have to have expectations of where technology is headed, but they must be realistic. As we learn more about technology and how it’ll be more helpful, hopefully it’ll be more helpful to relationships, too.

Is technology a tough field to observe and study, given how quickly it evolves and produces new products?

Absolutely. I’m writing a book now and my fear is that by the time I publish, it will be outdated—and it’s supposed to go to the publisher in December. If I were to follow the apps and trends, no one would get anything out of it. But if I just talk about the way they reorganize relationships and how the technology affects interactions, I tend to stay more relevant.

Does living or working in a city as sexually charged as Las Vegas affect your work in any way?

The way I’ve phrased it before, the Internet makes it Las Vegas anywhere because of the accessibility. Here in Las Vegas, I don’t notice technology being used differently. The only thing different might be the apps where you can locate someone, because people come here to make partnerships that they might not tell their partners about. This is just another mechanism for doing that.

Why did you choose the University of Salzburg?

At Salzburg, they offer opportunities to work with undergrad and graduate students. And Austria really has some interesting differences. They have a higher value in privacy. I’m interested in how that difference supports my model or how it might change it. And sometimes, in my work, there are gender differences. Gender can mean power, and in technology, those who have more power or more technological literacy, they have more power.

Do you know how you’ll go about conducting the survey?

I’m going to get info about Austria and neighboring communities and do sit-down interviews with families to see how technology plays a role in their relationships on an in-depth level. I want to also see the passion of the students [on this topic].

As someone who works for the brand new UNLV School of Medicine, is this extra gratifying?

Absolutely. One of the sections of the Fulbright application [asks] what this will mean to you and your school, and why that would be good. I said this is a brand new entity and this is a great opportunity [to] demonstrate how great this entity is and how we can bring more visibility to UNLV, and I would be the first from the School of Medicine to earn this distinction.

How do you hope the scholarship allows you to expand your research?

I would love to refine my model and make it not just a Westernized model, but something that can be applied globally.

This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.