Gwendolyn Puryear Keita, PhD, fervently believes in psychology and its power to improve people's lives. Most people don't realize, she says, how psychology can help solve their problems, from preventing violence and abuse to dealing with an aging population and from coping with AIDS- related issues to managing work-related stress.

Keita sees the APA Public Interest Directorate as a primary catalyst for carrying psychology's message and potential impact to the public. Increasing the public's awareness of psychology's contributions to society will be one of her top goals during her tenure in her newly assumed role as executive director of the Public Interest (PI) Directorate. She replaces Henry Tomes, PhD, who had been the directorate's executive since 1991.

"Our staff works hard to address the needs and concerns of a very diverse constituency-ethnic minorities, women, lesbian, gay and bisexual individuals, individuals with disabilities, aging individuals, individuals focused on children, youth and families-and on a broad range of issues including socioeconomic status, violence, HIV/AIDS and health," she says. "We are the group with primary responsibility for carrying out the 'promoting human welfare' portion of APA's mission."

One way Keita will work to boost the public's awareness of psychology is by improving the directorate's outreach to audiences beyond its traditional areas of influence-primarily psychologists-and delving into such areas as urban planning departments, schools and health-care systems. In doing so, she hopes to help psychology's prominence rise in both the public and private spheres.

"What, for example, does psychological research tell us about programs that should be available in nursing homes? In rehabilitation centers? Or in a high-stress work environment?" she asks.

In part, Keita aims to encourage APA's task forces and working groups to consider the dissemination of their conclusions just as important as developing them. "We have to think about how we can get our messages to the places that they are needed most and will have the biggest impact," she says.

A smooth transition

Keita has worked within APA for 18 years-most of those as director of the Office of Women's Programs and associate PI director, where she has worked with most of the directorate's offices in some way. She says she aims to build on Tomes's accomplishments to expand the directorate's influence.

"Since APA created the directorate in 1987, PI's mission has been to use the science and practice of psychology for the public welfare," she says. "We've done a good job, but I think we can do even more."

Keita stresses the importance of strong science and a cross-disciplinary approach as the foundation of the work of the PI Directorate.

"A strong science grounding helps ensure that APA's established reputation as an organization whose products and pronouncements are based on the sound research and expertise of our members is protected," Keita states. This is especially important in the area of public policy."

Keita is also well-known and respected for her effectiveness in working with multidisciplinary groups, colleagues say. Examples of her productive collaborations include five international conferences on work, stress and health (the sixth is planned for March 2006), three major women's health conferences, and a state-of-the art Summit on Women and Depression.

Her experience within APA as well as allied organizations and potential partners makes her ideally suited to understand and effectively address the challenges that face the directorate, says APA CEO Norman B. Anderson, PhD.

"Dr. Keita brings an unbelievably high level of experience, expertise and talent to the position," he says. "She has a strong reputation as a leader and collaborator among staff, members and national stakeholders relevant to PI."

Applying her background

Keita earned a social and personality psychology degree at Howard University and worked as assistant director for research and testing at Howard's Counseling Service for 13 years before coming to APA.

In that role Keita found herself primarily focused on African-American and women's issues. And with her background in social and personality psychology, she increasingly found herself wanting to approach issues from a social action perspective.

While still at Howard, she served as a member of APA's Committee on Women in Psychology (CWP), a group that aims to ensure women are treated as equals in the field. This gave her a good understanding of APA's ability to make a difference on a larger scale than her then-present position and helped Keita decide that

APA was the best place to direct her energy.

When Keita joined APA, the association-and the field of psychology-was significantly less diverse, she says. However, the changes she's seen-increases in the number of women, people of color and other underrepresented groups-have helped APA broaden its perspective and influence, she adds.

"The reality of psychology has changed, but we still have a distance to travel," she says.

Since arriving at PI, Keita has developed into a prominent voice in the field, says Tomes. Her background, he adds, makes her a perfect match for her new role.

"We couldn't have asked for anyone better to do this job," he says.

Zak Stambor contributed to this story.