Kevin Booker

As a forensic psychologist Kevin Booker, ’93 psychology, works at the intersection of human behavior and the law – often helping courts understand how trauma contributed to someone’s actions. Booker developed his interest in psychology as a UCI undergraduate, when he was mentored by the late professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry Joseph L. White and longtime administrator Thomas Parham. Through both of them, he learned the value of easing people’s psychological pain.

“I love what I do, and it all started at UCI – that really was where the seeds were planted,” says Booker, who studied psychology in the School of Social Sciences. “My training at UCI was so genuine, and my professors there were committed to making sure they were producing the most exquisite professionals.”

Hitting the books

Most of the people around Booker expected him to become a professional baseball player when he was growing up in Los Angeles. He even pitched his team to the Little League World Series. But one day, at the age of 15, Booker walked out of the locker room and chucked his glove, cleats and uniform into the trash – literally.

“I had an epiphany moment. I was just so convicted about who I was as a person, that baseball wasn’t going to be part of my life script,” Booker reflects. “I valued my intellectual prowess more than my athletic prowess. Even then, I was thinking about doctoral study.”

So Booker took to hitting the books at Crenshaw High School and joined the academic decathlon team. His potential drew the attention of a guidance counselor who placed him in a group of college-bound students to work together and stay on track. Booker drew inspiration from his uncle, who had a doctorate and worked in K-12 education, and his father who was a paramedic. UCI counselors Cheryl Dearmon and Michael Chennault (now both retired) visited Booker’s high school for outreach on behalf of the UC campuses, and those personal connections led him to set his sights on UCI.

Life calling

While Booker had long planned to pursue a doctorate, he refined his focus during his years as an Anteater. He initially aspired to medical school, but then he became interested in human behavior after taking several psychology classes in the School of Social Sciences. That interest was further sparked by professors and mentors he met along the way, including White, who is considered the “godfather of Black psychology,” and Parham, who was then director of the UCI Counseling Center and is now the president of California State University Dominguez Hills.

“Joe White and Thomas Parham were two people who personified what it meant to be a healer in manifest,” says Booker, who fondly remembers the impact of profound conversations he had with both of them. “They had a commitment to relieve people from ‘dis-ease,’ that impacted me at the deepest, existential level. I really felt that this could be my life calling.”

Under the guidance of Christine Lofgren, Ph.D., who directed the undergraduate psychology program, Booker started practicing experimental psychology in labs at UCI. He also worked at a nearby psychiatric hospital, which piqued his interest in cases where people were legally implicated because of mental health disorders. At UC Santa Barbara, where he earned his Ph.D., Booker became further interested in clinical psychology and its intersection with criminal and civil law.

Psychological healer

Today, Booker considers himself a psychological healer – walking in the path that White and Parham lit for him. He runs his own private practice, South Bay Forensics, and is on staff in the Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health at the West Los Angeles Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Traveling up and down the California coast, Booker works on cases that involve post-traumatic stress disorder, such as felony hit-and-run accidents involving pedestrians, and a host of other major penal code violations including assault with deadly weapon and murder. He evaluates patients who experienced trauma to better understand how their history predisposed them to behaviors which have put them in legal jeopardy. He then provides reports for the courts, explaining his professional opinion and offering context that helps prosecutors, judges, and juries better understand a defendant’s seemingly bizarre behavior – such as, a driver who hits a pedestrian but keeps driving for hundreds of feet or flees the scene. Booker’s expertise in the field has even been called on as a technical advisor for a CBS court TV show.

The next generation

Booker also invests in supporting the next generation of psychological healers. As a trauma specialist at the VA hospital, he trains predoctoral interns and psychiatry residents about trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological assessments and interventions. For many future medical doctors, this experience is their first time seeing real-life patients experiencing the conditions they have studied.

Booker credits Lofgren with inspiring him to want to teach undergraduates, as well. He has taught as a lecturer in the Department of Cognitive Sciences, and sometimes gives guest lectures, such as one last summer in Jeanett Castellanos’s lab to a group of undergraduates considering pursuing graduate studies. Castellanos, who is the associate dean of undergraduate student affairs in social sciences, has known Booker since they were both undergraduates at UCI.

Undergraduates face a paradox in college: they are asked to select a major of study at a time in their life when they may not know much about what actual career options exist, or what those careers entail.

“What really helped me solidify this decision as a career path was actually going and getting some real-world experience – working in applied psychology as opposed to experimental,” Booker says. “I suggest that students think about spending some time at a hospital where there are psychiatric patients to see in real time what this looks like, manifested in the human condition. That was extremely helpful for me.”

Booker also urges students to be flexible as they are exposed to new things and interests change over time. He enjoyed experimental lab work until he was exposed to more clinical psychology, providing assessment and intervention to patients. If he hadn’t been open to shifting his focus, he says he probably would have gone into experimental psychology – but not been as fulfilled as he is now.

“Every step of my journey at UCI was unparalleled in its qualitative richness, allowing me to develop mentally and emotionally,” Booker says. “My years at UCI were the end-all-be-all of my coming-of-age experiences.”

-Christine Byrd for UCI School of Social Sciences
-photo courtesy of Alan Weismann Studios

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