News Harvey A. Friedman Center for Aging

Alumni Spotlight: Elissa Kozlov, PhD

In this blog post, the Friedman Center for Aging is introducing new series spotlighting a WashU alum who has centered his/her training and subsequent professional work on aging. All individuals in our series have been affiliated with different WashU schools and have made important contributions to the field of aging while on campus and beyond. We recently spoke with our May alumna in the spotlight:

Elissa Kozlov, PhD


2008, BA, Psychology and Theater, Wesleyan University

2016, PhD, Clinical Psychology, Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, WashU

2015-16, Predoctoral Intern, Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Healthcare System

2016-2019, Postdoctoral Fellow, Weill Cornell Medical College, Division of Geriatrics & Palliative Care

Tell us about your current position and responsibilities.

I’m an assistant professor and director of our newly developed online MPH and Population Aging concentration at the School of Public Health at Rutgers University. I spend about 80% of my time doing research, and I also teach an online class called Aging and Mental Health. As the director of our concentration, and in order to better serve the needs of an aging population and help people get additional training and aging without having to move to New Jersey to do it, I worked to change the format of our program to an entirely remote, asynchronous degree.

How did you land where you are now?

Can I say dumb luck? I moved back to New York for my postdoc at Weill Cornell in behavioral geriatrics. At the time, I was a little ambivalent about whether I wanted to pursue academia. I felt grounded in the Tristate area, and I really didn’t want to do a nationwide search for a job. It just so happened that Rutgers posted a job that looked like it was made for me at the same time that I was ready to go on the job market. I was just really, really fortunate.

How has your career unfolded since then?

At Rutgers, I got lucky again. First I got an internal, two-year grant to support my research. Then I applied for and received a Beeson Career Development Award for clinical aging research scholars. That award really allowed me to pursue the area of research I’m most interested in, and it’s given me the dedicated time. I only teach one course, which is kind of unheard in academia. The K award bought out my time and let me focus on my research program. I’ve been really lucky thus far.

When and how did you know you wanted to focus your work on aging and older adults?

I’m that rare bird who always had an interest in aging, since I was maybe 14. In high school, I volunteered in a nursing home, and I did a lot of theater in high school and college. I don’t know why, but I kept getting cast as older adult characters, even when I was 14 or 15 years old. Then when I went to college, I took an aging biology course that had a service learning component, and I volunteered with older adults again. I did independent studies and an undergrad thesis, and I just kept choosing aging populations to study. Even then, I didn’t like the idea of growing older without the resources and support and access to health care and mental health care that I think everyone deserves. It felt like a topic that I could continue to think about and work to improve indefinitely. And to this day, I love thinking about how to help older adults navigate their lives in a more successful way.

What kinds of experiences did you have at Wash that had a meaningful impact on your career?

My mentor at Wash U was shifting part of his lab’s research towards palliative care and end of life, and I took that journey with him. I did a palliative care practicum at the St. Louis VA and loved it. I loved working with that population. It kind of just clicked for me, and that’s where I started to focus my research too. I helped conduct a project to help family members talk about end-of-life care preferences, and I did a study at the VA focused on palliative care consultations. Then, in my dissertation, I developed a scale to measure what people know about palliative care.

What’s the focus of your research work now?

I have a couple of areas. My NIH-funded research is on innovative technology-based interventions to increase access to evidence-based mental health care for older adults and adults with serious illness and their families. I’m really interested in making sure that the tech revolution doesn’t leave older adults behind, especially as it pertains to mental health care. So I’m looking at large language models and chatbots to see how we can leverage those technologies to make mental health care more accessible.

I’ve also gotten pretty involved in medical aid in dying research. That resource that gives people control over the timing and circumstances of their death passed here in the New Jersey legislature right before the pandemic. And I’ve been developing a formal research plan surrounding medical aid in dying. I’ve written a little bit about it, done a few preliminary studies, and I’m the site PI  and Co-I on the first ever federally funded study that’s looking at medical aid in dying.

Are there other departments or the programs or areas where you do your research?

I’m based at the School of Public Health, and my primary collaborator and mentor there is Paul Duberstein, another clinical psychologist. I also have a joint appointment at the School of Medicine in  the Department of Family Medicine. I have colleagues who are nephrologists, colleagues who are sociologists, ethicists, legal scholars. A lot of our work is based in the community, in medical clinics and community centers, so I work a lot with community partners for our intervention studies. It’s really hard work to recruit patients with serious illness, so you have to be really strategic and inclusive when thinking about whom to partner with and how to recruit.

What do you find fulfilling or meaningful about your career?

There’s so much. At the end of most of my studies I try to do qualitative interviews to make sure I’m not missing anything. And in so many of these interviews our participants say things that tell me I’m on the right path. For example, in our last mobile health mindfulness study people said, “’Thank you. Your program helped me so much” and “This is going to help so many people,” and that’s what keeps me going. A research career can feel like a hard path – grant rejections, manuscript rejections, long hours. But when a patient tells you that something made a difference and moved a needle for them, whether that’s in your clinical work or in your research work, it’s a game changer. And I’ve had students tell me they weren’t thinking about a career in aging but after taking my class or working in my lab, they’ve decided that’s what they want to do. That’s why I do it.

Any advice you have for other people who care about aging?

Don’t stop caring. Keep your intention up front. Keep that care central and close to your heart because that’s what lets you wake up and do the hard things every day. Working with people who have serious illness can be difficult. In my work every day I confront illness and mortality. There’s a lot of loss, there’s a lot of suffering. But also a lot of joy and a lot of meaning. So, caring is the thing that keeps you moving.

Any lessons learned from your journey?

Work with good people. People in the field of aging are delightful and warm and wonderful, so find good people to work with. And don’t let other people dim your light. Find you path, whatever your path is, and stay true to it.