Tag Archives: education

Daniel Casasanto

Daniel Casasanto is Director of the Experience and Cognition Lab in the Department of Human Development. The focus of his research is how does our experience, specifically, our cultural, linguistic, and bodily experiences, affect how we think, feel, and make decisions. In a 2016 interview with Atlantic magazine, Casasanto discusses how hand preference can have a profound influence on our motivations and decisions. Three of his graduate students--Emma Murrugarra, Amritpal Singh, and Ché Lucero--reflect on what led them to work with Dr. Casasanto and enroll in the Department of Human Development Graduate Program.


EMMA MURRUGARRA

Emma Murrugarra

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I graduated from the University of Kansas with Bachelor's degrees in Human Biology, Psychology, and Philosophy. I came directly to Cornell to work with Dr. Daniel Casasanto's Experience and Cognition Lab. I was drawn by both the lab and department philosophy of studying cognition in the broader context of human development (e.g., physical, cultural, biological, etc.).

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

Since coming to Cornell, I have been involved in projects looking at mental metaphors, specifically how we think about the relationship between time and space. Additionally, I have been investigating potential hormonal influences on the differences in abstract reasoning we find between eastern and western cultures.


AMRITPAL SINGH

Amritpal Singh

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I graduated from St. John's College, Annapolis, having completed a Great Books program there. I came to the Human Development program to work in the Experience and Cognition Lab because I wanted to study how mind and brain change and develop as a result of the interactions between them and their environments.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

One line of research I'm engaged in investigates how the way in which we use our bodies influences the neural organization of emotion. Another line of research I'm a part of investigates how abstract thinking can vary across different cultural contexts.


CHÉ LUCERO

Ché Lucero

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you chose the graduate study program in Human Development program at Cornell?

I completed my first few years of doctoral work at The University of Chicago. My advisor there, Prof. Casasanto, accepted a position at Cornell in Human Development. I decided to transfer to Cornell to complete my work. UChicago is wonderful and I had the option of completing my doctorate there, but I was lured by the integrative, cross-disciplinary aspect of the Human Development department here at Cornell and decided to make the leap.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

My research at Cornell has focused on how the human brain can rapidly approximate numerical quantities. To get a sense of what I mean, imagine if I gave you just one second to glance at a table that had nine oranges and sixteen apples sitting on it. You wouldn't have the time you'd need to count them, but you'd know that there were more apples than oranges anyway! If I then asked you to guess exactly how many apples and how many oranges there were, your answer for each might be off by a small amount, but you'd be very unlikely to make a huge error (e.g. you wouldn't guess twenty-five oranges). You were able to get an approximate sense of the number of fruit very quickly, and without resorting to counting!

Well, that's neat! But, how does the brain do that? Decades of research in humans and primates (who also have number approximation abilities) have pointed to one particular part of the brain as being critical for approximating quantities; the intraparietal sulcus. The intraparietal sulcus is considered to be a relatively "high level" area of the brain because it receives and integrates input from many other areas, including from multiple "lower level" areas that are heavily involved in processing the senses (i.e. audition, vision, etc.) The best understanding has been that the intraparietal sulcus computes approximate number on the basis of sensory information that was fed up to it by the "lower level" sensory areas.

The projects I'm involved in have been testing a relatively new idea, that the visual system (occipital cortex) might treat numerosity as a visual feature, similarly to how it processes features like contrast, color, or edges. We have been using neuroimaging techniques like electroencephalography (EEG) to observe subject's brain activity while we show them scenes containing varying numbers of objects very briefly (thirty scenes per second!). Our initial experiments have provided strong evidence that the visual cortex is itself approximating number without input from the intraparietal sulcus. This discovery is a bit startling and naturally raises questions about the role of the intraparietal sulcus' in numerical cognition, since researchers previously believe it to be the only place in the brain that computes approximate number. We are currently preparing new experiments to figure out what role the intraparietal sulcus is playing. Is it also approximating numerosity independently of the visual cortex? Does it receive pre-computed approximate number representations from the visual cortex? We have hints that part of the intraparietal sulcus' role may be in bringing number approximations to conscious awareness.

 

 

HD TODAY e-NEWS: Insights from Human Development's Research & Outreach

HD TODAY e-NEWS is a quarterly digest of cutting-edge research from the Department of Human Development, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University. Explore the HD Today e-NEWS website at http://hdtoday.human.cornell.edu/ and discover a wide range of resources:

Tamar Kushnir, professor of human development

Tamar Kushnir is Director of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Human Development. Dr. Kushnir's research examines mechanisms of learning in young children, with a focus on social learning. She continues to explore the role that children's developing knowledge - in particular their social knowledge - plays in learning, a question with implications for the study of cognitive development as well as for early childhood education. Three of her graduate students--Teresa Flanagan, Alyssa Varhol, and Alice Xin Zhao--reflect on what led them to work with Dr. Kushnir and enroll in the Department of Human Development Graduate Program.

TERESA FLANAGAN

Teresa Flanagan

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you came to the Human Development program at Cornell?

Before graduate school, I attended Franklin & Marshall College for my undergraduate career. There I studied Scientific and Philosophical Studies of the Mind with a focus in Cognitive Science and was the lab manager of the three developmental psychology labs. I came to the Human Development program at Cornell because I admired the interdisciplinary mindset, something I am incredibly passionate about. I knew that this program would provide me with opportunities to learn and conduct research from multiple academic perspectives.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

I have been working on a few different projects. I am currently analyzing and overseeing a study that addresses the relationship between children’s free will beliefs and ability to imagine different possibilities. I am also preparing for a study that addresses the influence of culture on children’s understanding of other’s preferences. The last study I am working on addresses children’s free will beliefs and trust of humanoid robots after playing a collaborative game with one.

When you are not doing research or teaching, what do you like to do?

Outside of academia, I am the secretary for Cornell’s Graduate Women in Science [GWIS], an organization that aims to supporting marginalized identities in scientific fields (GWIS is a national organization that was founded in 1921 by women graduate students at Cornell--Ed.). I also love acting and comedy and so I have been rehearsing with an improv comedy group based in downtown Ithaca. Outside of all of that, I love doing yoga, going on hikes, and hanging out with friends!


ALYSSA VARHOL

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you came to the Human Development program at Cornell?

Alyssa Varhol

I met my now-adviser, Tamar Kushnir, at the biennial conference for the Cognitive Development Society last year. She was one of the first academics who didn’t flinch after hearing how many topics I wanted to incorporate into my research. Instead, she enthusiastically supported (and matched!) the breadth of my interests and encouraged me to apply for the Human Development PhD here. At the time, I was a lab manager for Melissa Koenig’s and Dan Berry’s labs at the University of MN’s Institute of Child Development, and before that, I earned undergraduate degrees in Psychology and English in Atlanta, GA and a MSc in Psych Research Methods in Sheffield, UK, (Alyssa received a Fulbright Award to study at the University of Sheffield--Ed.) and I had spent those 8 years of trying to find a way to integrate all of my diverse interests (including language, social cognition, individual differences, learning, parent-child dynamics, social norms, creativity, etc.) into a reasonable research program.  Now, after my first semester, I can’t imagine a better place to begin establishing that research program in the integrated topic that, with Professor Kushnir’s guidance, I have finally chosen: the development of social learning across different contexts.

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

I am interested in the ways children learn anything from words to social norms from other people early in life and how that might vary across individual differences (e.g., in cognitive and social skills or in parenting style ) and group differences (e.g., culture or socioeconomic status). I have been working on different stages of 3 projects related to this topic. I have primarily been working on a study of preschoolers’ learning from adults who demonstrate different knowledge states-- specifically, their willingness to learn the names and functions of unfamiliar objects from an adult who previously admitted she did not know the name of a familiar object like a cup-- to explore how children begin to evaluate people as sources of information. Professor Kushnir, Tess Flanagan, and I have also been preparing to begin an NSF funded study exploring how children learn to evaluate people’s behavior as social norms versus personal preferences across two cultures, but we will really get moving on that project in early 2019.

When you are not doing research or teaching, what do you like to do?

I feel incredibly fortunate that my cohort of 1st year grad students is very social, so we spend a lot of time doing things together outside of our working hours, like having reading groups about topics of mutual interest, watching the series Dark, and going bowling.  My favorite of our activities is always our hiking trips to Tremen, Taughannock, and Buttermilk-- it’s unbelievable how many beautiful places are nearby! I also love anything that has to do with animals, especially dogs, so I help out my neighbors with their golden retriever puppy every week, which is delightful.


ALICE XIN ZHAO

Can you tell me a little about your background and why you came to the HumanDevelopment program at Cornell?

Alice Xin Zhao

Before coming to HD, I did my undergrad in Psychology at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China (Tsinghua University is one of China's C9 League elite universities with a long history of international partnerships--Ed.). During my undergrad study, I was fortunate to work as a research assistant remotely for two cross-cultural projects on children’s causal reasoning and free will beliefs led by Alison Gopnik’s lab at UC Berkeley. I thus found my research interest in children’s early social cognitive development and applied to work with Tamar Kushnir (who is an expert in the area I’m interested in).

What research projects have you been involved with during your time here at Cornell?

During my time at Cornell, I’ve been working on a series of projects on children’s beliefs about choices, and their implications on children’s behavioral regulation and social evaluations. Some questions my studies have tried to answer include: 1) What do children perceive to be choices in light of various constraints (e.g. social and moral norms, physical constraints)? 2) How these beliefs relate to children’s self-control experience? 3) How do children evaluate someone who overcomes temptations to fulfill social and moral obligations? Do they understand the virtue of self-control?

When you are not doing research or teaching, what do you like to do?

In my free time (I try to have some…), I enjoy reading, playing board games, skiing, shopping and baking.

FEATURES

Charles Brainerd to receive G. Stanley Hall Award

Charles Brainerd, professor of human development and human neuroscience, will receive the American Psychological Association’s G. Stanley Hall award for distinguished contributions to developmental science at the APA’s August 2019 meeting in San Francisco.


Assisted-living is better when family and staff communicate

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in Human Development and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology, has developed the Partners in Caregiving in Assisted Living Program (PICAL)  to reduce staff-family conflict in assisted living facilities.


Institute for the Social Sciences grant awarded to bethany ojalheto

The Institute for the Social Sciences (ISS) grants awards to faculty to develop new research or seek external funding. bethany ojalehto received funding for her project, "Cognitive Drivers of Environmental Decision Making: Mobilizing Indigenous Ecocentric Conceptual Perspectives in Diverse Contexts."


Our brains are wired to earn money, but not save it

Adam Anderson and Eve De Rosa recently studied why it is hard for people to save money. They found that when people were given the choice, over 90% of the time they chose earning money to saving it. They discuss how our brains may be hard-wired for earning and that saving requires more conscious effort.


Teens old for their grade more likely to enroll in college

Felix Thoemmes uses math models to better understand why high school students who are old for their grade are more likely to enroll in college than students who are young. The article discusses how the age at which one starts school has implications for each student as well as for the class as a whole.


MULTIMEDIA

Robert Sternberg and the Triangular Theory of Love

Robert Sternberg was interviewed on October 9, 2018 for the podcastWhat Makes Us Human?from Cornell University's College of Arts & Sciences. This is the podcast's third season, "What Do We Know About Love?" and Dr. Sternberg discusses his "Triangular Theory of Love."


 

Felix Thoemmes

Felix Thoemmes studies quantitative methods and design for the social sciences. In the research paper described below, he collaborated in the development of a math model to show the causal relationship between the student's age and the likelihood the student will enroll in college. Previously, Dr. Thoemmes collaborated with Dr. Philip Parker of the Australian Catholic University on a study of the effect of the college gap year on persistence in college (https://hdtoday.human.cornell.edu/tag/felix/).

Reprinted from apa.org, "Students Who Are Old for Their Grade More Likely to Enroll
in College"

Teens who are old for their grade appear to feel more confident about their academic abilities and are more likely to enroll in college than their younger peers, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

The study analyzed data from more than 10,000 Australian students who were tracked over a decade and found that the relative age of students in their grade had significant effects. The issue should be considered by government agencies, schools, teachers and parents, especially in enforcing strict regulations about school starting age for students, said lead author Philip D. Parker, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Australian Catholic University.

“Being young for your grade really does lead to lower academic self-confidence, especially in math, even accounting for student’s actual performance in those subjects,” Parker said. “Further, being young for your grade appears to slightly lower a student’s chances of entering college, and the most likely reason for this is a lower level of academic self-confidence.”

The findings from the study were modest in size, with 58 percent of students who were almost a year older for their grade enrolling in college, compared with 52 percent of students who were almost a year younger for their grade. The study was published in the Journal of Educational Psychology.

In Australia, the United States and other countries, many parents start their children in school late for their grade to gain a future advantage in academics or sports. Those decisions are understandable but ultimately may hurt other students, Parker said. Parents of children who are young for their grade shouldn’t worry about it because the research findings were modest in size, but there are greater implications for school systems and policymakers to create a level playing field for all students, he said.

“It is critical that school systems have a clear and strictly enforced school starting-age policy,” Parker said. “While there may be joy or shame for students who are advanced or held back a grade, educators also need to consider the implications that those decisions will have on other students in their classes.”

The study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Australia Youth, which included 10,370 15-year-old Australians who were surveyed over a decade. The participants, who were born between May 1987 and April 1988, were evenly divided between males and females and consisted of 78 percent native-born Australians, with smaller numbers of first-generation or second-generation immigrants. Three percent of the students identified as being of indigenous descent.

Article: “The Negative Year in School Effect: Extending Scope and Strengthening Causal Claims,” by Philip D. Parker, PhD and Herbert W. Marsh, PhD, Australian Catholic University; Nicholas Biddle, PhD, Australian National University, and Felix Thoemmes, PhD, Cornell University. Journal of Educational Psychology, published Mar. 15, 2018. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/edu0000270.

Crossing Disciplines and the Lifespan

Qi Wang, Chair of Department of Human Development

Reprinted from APS.org, September 28, 2018.

In a new recurring feature, the Observer showcases university labs and departments that have advanced integrative science. In the inaugural installment, APS Fellow Qi Wang talks about Cornell University’s Department of Human Development, which she chairs.   

 

What is the history of the department? What was its genesis?

The Department of Human Development at Cornell University is an interdisciplinary entity that uses multiple approaches, methods, and levels of analysis to study human development across the lifespan and integrates basic and translational research to enhance development and well-being in diverse contexts and populations. The department distinguishes itself with an ecological view of development as unfolding in multiple overlapping contexts. It has consistently been ranked as one of the top human development programs in the country.

The department, founded in 1925, was one of the first departments in the United States established by a university that focused on child development within the context of the family. Over the past 90 years, the mission of the department has expanded to include the full lifespan: Adolescence and emerging adulthood were added to early childhood development during the 1960s, and adulthood and aging were added during the 1980s. The study of contextual influences has expanded outside of the family to a greater number and variety of contexts, including peer groups, schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces. The faculty have come to include scholars of multiple disciplines and methodologies. Currently, the department has a professorial faculty of 24. Undergraduate majors typically number between 250 and 300, with approximately 35 masters and doctoral students in residence.

How has it evolved over the years?

The department has become increasingly dynamic and integrative. It has maintained its ecological focus, exemplified by the influential work of APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Urie Bronfenbrenner, APS Past Board Member Steve Ceci, and others, and in the meantime has redefined the ecological perspective to align with the development of the general field. This is reflected in our study of an increasing number and variety of contexts and their interactions with developmental (social, cognitive, biological) processes across the lifespan. We increasingly emphasize interdisciplinary and integrative approaches that span areas of psychology (cognitive, developmental, clinical, social, cultural), along with law, neuroscience, sociology, education, and history. We recently recruited a computational political scientist who studies social networks, political communication, online social support, and health. The department also has evolved to increasingly focus on culture and diversity, examining basic developmental processes in relation to a variety of demographic factors including socioeconomic status, gender, race and ethnicity, and cultural background.

Our interest in advanced methodologies is reflected in the addition of neuroscience, biological/life sciences, and data science in the department and in the importance we place on multiple levels of analysis. From the sociology and psychology of health and aging to the neuroscience of memory, emotions, and decision-making, the department mixes equally observational and correlational studies with rigorous experimental approaches and interventions within and outside the laboratory. The department has made a strong investment in neuroscience, being the only human development program in the country to house an MRI facility. The department is also unique among human development programs in housing a nonhuman animal laboratory, allowing us to lead examinations of lifespan developmental changes in the brain and behavior and how they are shaped by diverse environmental contexts, early life experiences, and genes and their expression. The recent addition of social networks research and data science further extends our interdisciplinary strengths.

The department embraces translational activities and “use-inspired research,” seeking evidence-based solutions for real-world problems. Both its pedagogy and outreach are research-based — often research conducted by the very faculty member teaching a particular course or engaging in a particular outreach activity.

How many faculty members are in the department? What departments or disciplines are represented?

The department has consistently attracted a distinguished faculty. Many mainstream psychological scientists have decided to join our faculty, with four of our newer faculty leaving tenured positions at top psychology programs. In the past year, we have recruited four assistant professors who are among the very best of their cohort. Several members of our faculty hold National Academy memberships, including the National Academy of Education, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Medicine. Members of our faculty have garnered just about every prestigious award within psychological science, including the APS William James Fellow Award, the APS James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award, the G. Stanley Hall Award, the Society for Research in Child Development Senior Distinguished Contributions Award, and the E. L. Thorndike Award. The department has a professorial faculty of 24, from various disciplines within psychology, sociology, political and information science, and neuroscience.

The research topics of the faculty fall into three general areas: Law and Human Development (LHD), Health and Wellbeing (HW), and Cognition in Context (CC). All areas are characterized by interdisciplinary focus, lifespan perspective, cultural diversity, multiple approaches, methods, and levels of analysis, and integrative basic and translational research to study real-world problems.

The LHD area assembles a group of world-class psychologists and legal scholars to study the interplay of law, psychology, and human development. It offers a top-notch PhD–JD dual degree program. The HW area houses leading research on typical and atypical development across the lifespan in diverse populations. Faculty in this area examine the relation between mental and physical health in response to contextual factors and have produced groundbreaking and policy-shaping work. The CC area offers the most dynamic and rigorous investigations of the developing mind in interaction with a variety of biological, social, and cultural factors. Faculty conduct research using neuroimaging, EEG, cross-species modeling, field and laboratory experiments, and longitudinal designs to understand fundamental processes underlying human mind and behavior in context.

What would you describe as the most surprising or unexpected collaborations that psychological scientists have been able to join or lead within the department?

Every generation brings new scholars from diverse disciplines to our department. Their research transforms the department into new directions and in the meantime also is transformed by the interdisciplinary culture of the department. Often they collaborate across disciplinary lines. One example is an outstanding young neuroscientist we hired, who began a collaboration with a sociologist in HD who studies aging. It is the sort of collaboration that would be unlikely in a homogenous setting. There are many similar instances of cross-disciplinary collaborations to study machine learning, affective neuroscience, decision-making, and so forth, within and outside of the department. The disciplines that have been involved in HD faculty’s collaborative research include law, particle physics, mathematics, microbiology, biomedical engineering, business, behavioral economics, communication, and information science.

Here are some of the current cross-disciplinary collaborations of our faculty:

  • A cognitive developmental scientist is working with a sociologist from Cornell’s sociology department and a particle physicist at the Fermi Lab in Batavia, Illinois, to conduct a study on women in science.
  • A cognitive developmentalist is working with a law professor at the University of Michigan on children’s testimonial competence.
  • A sociologist is working with a team of physicians and health-care providers to conduct intervention research and policy analysis related to aging and health care, using evidence-based methods to develop a competent, caring, long-term care workforce.
  • An HD neuroscientist is working with an HD sociologist on Alzheimer’s disease research.
  • An HD member has had a long-term collaboration with a professor of pediatrics at another university around the evaluation of outcomes associated with the Nurse Family Partnership program.
  • A member of HD collaborates with a member of our business school faculty on cultural influences on bias.
  • A sociologist has been collaborating with both a pediatrics professor and an epidemiologist to examine the impact of poverty-related stressors on the cognitive and physical development of children in low-income families. She also works with two members of the Communications Department at Cornell to develop social-media use for health care among older adults.
  • Another member works with a pediatrician/public health scholar in another university on the projected behavioral impacts of global climate change.
  • An HD neuroscientist collaborates with a microbiologist here on the gut–brain axis and the biome.
  • Faculty from an education department, a mathematics department, and a veterinary school have also worked with our faculty members.

Has forming an interdisciplinary entity such as this made it easier or more challenging to obtain grant funding and get research published?

Our interdisciplinary focus has made us more competitive in obtaining grant funding and getting the research published. Specifically, our research often cuts across the more traditional categories of psychology and amplifies their applied nature.

On the one hand, our faculty has demonstrated “mainstream” excellence. Our publications appear in all of the top specialty psychological journals and the top general–general journals. Our faculty also frequently publish in top specialty journals in nondevelopmental core areas of psychology. In addition to the research being of the highest quality, a key reason for our success in publishing is that our research targets theoretical and empirical questions that our peers perceive as important, no matter whether they do or don’t fit into intuitive categories.

On the other hand, our faculty also excel in many integrative and interdisciplinary publishing outlets and make broad scholarly contributions beyond their core areas and beyond psychological science. Our publications also appear in nonpsychology journals such as those focused on sociology, education, anthropology, and medicine, and as a result our work has reached vastly different audiences. In addition to peer-reviewed articles in journals outside psychology, our faculty have also published a range of influential books, op-ed pieces, and Chronicle of Higher Education articles that address a wide range of audiences. Oftentimes, building a reputation for solid work in core psychological science journals opens up opportunities for important broader contributions.

Part of the “translation” and “interdisciplinary” process is collaborating with colleagues outside the disciplines in which we were trained. There are many good examples in our department as noted earlier. Pertaining to publication, for example, several faculty have collaborated with researchers in medical fields and published in major health-related journals with high impact factors, including The Journal of the American Medical Association, Pediatrics, Annals of Internal Medicine, New England Journal of Medicine, and the American Journal of Public Health.

What are the strategies that the department has utilized in maintaining its top-rank position in the field?

One strategy is related to our hiring priorities. We hire the best people available through open searches, without constraints based on current research areas or rank. We also actively seek opportunities to hire targeted senior faculty who are superstars in the field. We are fortunate to have a very supportive dean who lets us conduct open searches and prefill lines with strong candidates and who does not rescind lines after unsuccessful searches. In addition, our faculty overwhelmingly support hiring the best people, regardless of area.

Another strategy is to self-reflect on our current research topics and to allow the department to evolve as scholarship and policy needs change. Over the years, there have been important shifts in research emphases as fields have either changed direction or ceased to exist with faculty retirement or leave.

Another effective strategy is to establish a mentoring system for junior faculty. Each nontenured junior faculty in the department is provided with a mentoring committee as soon as he/she arrives on campus. The committee consists of three tenured faculty whose research is in a similar area as that of the junior faculty. The committee provides honest and constructive written feedback to the mentee at the end of each year, which is then discussed with the mentee in person as well as reported to the general faculty. The feedback acknowledges the mentee’s achievements in research, teaching, and service and in the meantime helps the mentee identify any issues so they can be effectively addressed early on. Because of this supportive system and because we strive to hire the best people in the first place, our junior faculty have been extremely successful in their work. Many have come to be leading researchers in their respective fields. We have four APS Rising Stars, and many junior faculty have received young investigator awards from major organizations. In the past 15 years, we have not had a single case of denied tenure.

Republished from Human Ecology Magazine, Spring 2016

Annie Erickson & Eve De Rosa

Human Ecology Faculty-Led Undergraduate Research. Eve DeRosa / Annie Erickson

Human Ecology Faculty-Led Undergraduate Research. Eve DeRosa / Annie Erickson

What does your lab study?

Annie Erickson ’16: Our lab is interested in studying the neural basis of cognitive processes such as attention, learning, and memory. To investigate these complex neural mechanisms, we use a cross-species approach studying both human and animals. We are interested in the neurochemicals that modulate cognition— specifically, a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. My project focuses on the effect of acute and chronic caffeine intake on cognition in rats, testing whether caffeine can rescue cognitive deficits that have been induced by blocking acetylcholine.

Why study caffeine?

Eve De Rosa, Associate Professor of Human Development and Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Sesquicentennial Fellow: We all drink coffee, but we don’t always give deep thought to how it affects attention, learning, and memory. That’s why I love the real-world importance of Annie’s honors thesis question. She’s finding cognitive tasks that both rats and humans can perform so that we can translate the basic science experiments in the lab to our understanding of human cognition.

What do you like about this work?

Erickson: After following this project from conception to experimental setup to final execution, it’ll be incredibly exciting to see the results. It’s been inspiring to work with Eve, and to see the way she’s able to balance research, teaching, and family. She’s so enthusiastic and positive, and I really enjoy discussing my ideas with her, because she’s always so encouraging.

De Rosa: I love mentoring students like Annie! After participating in the lab as an undergrad research assistant, she approached me with this wonderful question about looking at caffeine’s ability to boost cognition, and whether it was caffeine’s interaction with acetylcholine that underlies this ability.

The fact that caffeine is a cognitive enhancer is something I was already aware of, but not that it might be important in slowing the decline of pathological cognitive aging, like in Alzheimer’s disease. When Annie brought that idea to me, I could see why it might be worth taking a chance to pursue the question.

What’s the risk?

De Rosa: Rat neuroscience is expensive, and it’s not my primary research focus. I’m very interested in acetylcholine, which declines during normal aging, and in using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging to assess brain activity. But Annie’s research is something I would never have pursued on my own. And now I’m having so much fun reading the literature, thinking about how it relates to my larger research vision.

Erickson: Through the process of developing my independent project, Eve has provided crucial advice while also being incredibly flexible in letting me explore different ideas. She’s shown how important collaboration is for successful research and I’ve learned so much about thinking and writing scientifically—skills that are fundamental to a future in research.

In 2015, Annie Erickson received the Human Ecology Undergraduate Summer Research Stipend, and is currently working toward an honors thesis funded by the Human Ecology Alumni Association

Felix Thoemmes

Felix Thoemmes

Felix Thoemmes, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development was part of team of researchers that examined the effect of taking a gap year before college on student persistence in college.

Reprinted from the Academy of Finland Communications, May 12, 2015

A gap year between high school and the start of university studies does not weaken young people’s enthusiasm to study or their overall performance once the studies have commenced. On the other hand, adolescents who continue to university studies directly after upper secondary school are more resilient in their studies and more committed to the study goals. However, young people who transfer directly to university are more stressed than those who start their studies after a gap year. These research results have been achieved in the Academy of Finland’s research programme The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills (TULOS).

“For young people, the transition from upper secondary school to further studies is a demanding phase in life, and many adolescents are tired at the end of upper secondary school. The demanding university admission tests take place close to the matriculation examination in Finland and require diligent studying from students. For many, a gap year offers an opportunity to take a break and think about future choices while developing a positive view of the future,” says Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro, the principal investigator of the study.

The transition period from secondary education to further studies is a key phase for the development of young people. It is a phase in which adolescents ponder over important future choices regarding educational directions and career goals.

The impact of a gap year on young people’s motivation to study and their future educational path was studied for the first time in the Academy of Finland’s research programme The Future of Learning, Knowledge and Skills. The research was conducted in Finland with the help of the FinEdu longitudinal study, which followed young people for several years after upper secondary school. A corresponding study was conducted concurrently in cooperation with Australian researchers among local youth in Australia.

“In the light of our research findings, a gap year between secondary education and further studies is not harmful, especially if the young person only takes one year off. When these adolescents are compared with those who continue their studies directly after upper secondary school, those who take a gap year quickly catch up with the others in terms of study motivation and the effort they put into their studies,” says Salmela-Aro.

If young people take more than one gap year, however, they may have more difficulties coping with the studies and with study motivation. “In the transition phase, many young people are left quite alone, which may make the transition to a new study phase quite challenging.”

According to the research results, those young people who begin their further studies directly after upper secondary school are more resilient in their studies and more committed to their goals than those who take a gap year. In addition, adolescents who continue their studies immediately after upper secondary school believe in their ability to achieve their goals more than those who start their studies after a gap year. On the other hand, they find studying and aiming for study goals more stressful than the students who take a gap year.

“The research results also suggest that students who take a gap year are slightly more susceptible to dropping out of university later on than those who transfer to university directly after upper secondary school,” says Salmela-Aro.

The study has been published in Developmental Psychology:

I wish I had (not) taken a gap-year? The psychological and attainment outcomes of different post-school pathways. Parker, Philip D.; Thoemmes, Felix; Duinevald, Jasper J.; Salmela-Aro, Katariina. Developmental Psychology, Vol 51(3), Mar 2015, 323–333. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0038667

More information:

  • Professor Katariina Salmela-Aro, Cicero Learning, University of Helsinki and University of Jyväskylä, tel. +358 50 415 5283, katariina.salmela-aro(at)helsinki.fi

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Last modified 12 May 2015

great minds 3.400

Zoe Katz HD, '15

Nineteen Human Development undergraduates presented their findings at the 30th annual Cornell Undergraduate Research Board spring forum April 22.

Project topics, supported by faculty members, ranged from language acquisition in Korean infants to mother and child health in Kenya to understanding how young adults assess risk. The forum allows students to present research projects that they have designed and led during the academic year.

Read more about the event in the Cornell Chronicle.

View a slideshow of Human Ecology presenters, listed below, on Facebook.

Yeo Jin Ahn ’15, HD

Chelsea Brite ’15, HD

Ashton Conner ’15, HD

Rachel Cooper ’17, HD, and Kate Goldberg ’17, HD (presenting together)

Olivia Ellers ’15, HD

Zoe Katz ’15, HD

Aaron Lee ’16, HD, Olivia Dieni ’16, HD, Xi Richard Chen ’18, HD (presenting together)

Devin Massaro ’15, HD

Brian Meagher ’15, HD

Grace Monks ’15, HD

Catherine Liang ’15, HBHS and Kimberly Batcha ’15, HD (presenting together)

Julie Barbera ’17, HD, Jeanie Gribben ’15, HD, Masrai Williams ’15, HD (presenting together)

Colleen Sullivan ’16, HD, Azraa Janmohamed ’16, HD (presenting together)

 

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