Tag Archives: outreach

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.

by David Garavito and Allison M. Hermann

Junior and senior high school students from Ithaca Youth Bureau’s College Discovery Program visited the Department of Human Development to learn about college, research, and concussions from members of Dr. Valerie Reyna's Laboratory for Rational Decision Making (LRDM).

gelatin brain used for concussion simulation

The middle schoolers attended a concussion and the brain workshop on July 17th at the LRDM lab in Martha Van Rensselaer Hall led by David Garavito (JD/PhD) and Joseph DeTello '18. The group participated in a research project on concussions and decision-making and then took part in an interactive program about concussions. Students shook eggs to demonstrate how you don’t need to crack a shell (their skulls) to damage a yoke (their brains). Then they compressed and stretched gelatin brains to see how diffuse damage to neural fibers (axons) in the brain can occur after the impact of a concussion.

Allison Franz '18 and middle schoolers from Ithaca Youth Bureau

Allison Franz '18 got the group moving with a game of “blob tag". In this game, a group of students form a “blob” and try to tag other students without letting go of each others’ hands. The tagged students then became part of the blob. As the blob grew and people pulled in different directions, the blob would break apart and lose the tagged players. This is similar to what occurs when there is a blow to the skull and the skull comes to a fast stop - the brain moves in different directions and the neural fibers break resulting in diffuse damage to the neuronal axons.

The high school students attended the second brain and concussion workshop in the LRDM lab on August 16th. They participated in the concussion and decision-making project followed by a hands-on demonstration of concussion risks even when wearing helmets. The students loved creating their own "helmets” to protect eggs which were dropped from a great height. They learned that not only did they need to protect the egg from hitting the ground, they also needed to slow the momentum of the egg. This is a very important lesson to learn, as there is often a false sense of security when wearing a helmet in sports like football. Although the skull may be protected by a helmet, an abrupt momentum shift causes the brain to keep moving, resulting in the brain hitting the skull and a concussion.

James Jones-Rounds, HEP lab, and high school students from the Ithaca Youth Bureau

The group also visited the HD EEG and Psychophysiology (HEP) Laboratory. James Jones-Rounds, HEP manager, the lab equipment used for gathering data about electrical activity of the brain, electrical characteristics of the skin, and measurement of eye activity. Many of the students volunteered to be in the demonstration - one student even tried on the mobile EEG headset and managed to move a box on a computer screen using her mind!

We gratefully acknowledge Engaged Cornell for funding the Engaged Risky Decision Making project which supports our research and outreach with adolescents on the risks of sports-related concussions.

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

by Stacey Chen ‘18
 

Stacey Chen

Stacey Chen '18

This summer, I’ve had the pleasure of combining the ultimate camp experience with the experience of working in a laboratory and conducting exciting, cutting-edge in-field research on decision making. The project, Health and the Brain Neuroscience Outreach, is a Cornell Cooperative Extension internship under the direction of Dr. Valerie Reyna. The mission of the CCE internship program is to translate and apply Cornell research in ways that can benefit communities all around New York State.

In late March, I joined Dr. Reyna’s Laboratory for Rational Decision Making as a member of the Health and Medical Decision Making Team, whose goal is to use research on decision making to help educators and medical professionals effectively use theory-based interventions and communicate risks to patients. Using the information they’ve effectively learned, these patients can then make informed decisions about their health.

Valerie Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility

Valerie Reyna, director of the Human Neuroscience Institute and co-director of the Cornell MRI Facility

My first task of the project was to update the curricula taught to middle school students in past years at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, in Canandaigua, New York. Looking at two modules, Nutrition & Neuroscience and Genetics & Neuroscience. The goal of teaching both curricula was to help students better understand obesity prevention and genetic risk using theory and evidence-based methods.

The curricula were based on Dr. Reyna’s research on decision-making and the importance of incorporating “gist” (a fuzzy or vague representation that contrasts with a precise verbatim representation) into the lesson plans in order to see the effectiveness of a gist-enhanced curriculum. According to Fuzzy-Trace Theory, people tend to rely on gist (bottom-line meaning) rather than verbatim representations (such as exact wording or specific numbers) whenever they make decisions. In teaching the campers, the goal was to see an improvement in retaining the information learned through gist when making decisions, such as deciding between eating a cupcake or eating an apple. Examples of gist-enhanced concepts are: “Developing healthy eating and exercise habits has both long-term and short-term benefits for a person’s physical and mental health,” and “Your diet should consist mostly of fruits and vegetables.”

I was extremely excited to be able to work with the campers. It’s very rewarding to be able to be the person to expose kids to new information, especially the kind that has the potential to affect their lives for the better– like knowing the nutrition concepts and science behind eating well and exercising more, or understanding more about how genetics work. By reviewing Dr. Reyna’s research, I was able to generate a list of possibilities for fun, informative, and engaging activities for the campers. In order to get a better perspective of what a camper would like (around the ages between 11-14), I talked to kids of that age to get their opinions and feedback to develop the most effective and engaging activities. I also read and dissected Dr. Reyna’s empirical research, such as A Theory of Medical Decision Making and Health: Fuzzy Trace Theory (Reyna 2008) and Efficacy of a Web-Based Intelligent Tutoring System for Communicating Genetic Risk of Breast Cancer: A Fuzzy-Trace Theory Approach (Wolfe et al. 2015), to understand the theory behind what we teach in Health and the Brain. Her past publications revolve around how humans remember and process information, which is essential to the development of activities and curriculum for the camp.

After solidifying teaching plans and curricula, I was able to generate and order a material list needed for this year’s curricula. I also started looking into data from previous years to get a better idea of the project through learning how to use IBM SPSS Statistics software. Though at times learning the program has proven to be challenging, the skill set used in statistical analyses is essential to the research process and for my future career goals. Throughout my time of preparation of Health and the Brain in the lab, I have learned much about working in the lab and interacting with not only fellow researchers, but also professionals in other fields, and had a challenging yet enjoyable time getting acquainted to it. I’ve learned that time management is key to completing the project successfully, and held many practice sessions teaching the curriculum and improving my notes and lesson plans.

My adventure at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills began with staff training, including how to mitigate bullying, report child abuse, how to effectively work with kids, and how to de-escalate situations, etc. Staff training allowed me to be well prepared when the kids come to camp in order to make sure that the kids can get the best possible camp experience, and also to get a better sense of how to best engage and recruit kids to participate in the Health and the Brain Outreach Program. During my time at camp, I stayed in a log cabin called Big Dipper, which housed me, Corrine Casal '16, Margaret Sloan'18 (both from the Adolescent Transitions Lab at Cornell), and Sophia Franck (another intern working on a social media project for the camp).  Connecting with all other counselors was very exciting, and I was able to join in on all the camp traditions, such as getting named by another counselor or fun camp songs or skits. We all use camp names at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, and on the last day of each week, the campers try to guess our real names. My name at camp was Fence-Apella (Pella), because I fenced and sang a capella in high school! It was so inspiring to see how enthusiastic and welcoming the other counselors are to make sure the campers have the greatest time and feel comfortable at camp. The kids were so lucky to have such a diverse selection of activities, ranging from Archery and Air Riflery to Critter Care (where there are two baby white rabbits, hedgehogs, and even snakes).

After staff training came Week 1 of camp, when I finally got to meet all the bright-eyed campers! Every Sunday morning, I woke up early to drive with a graduate student from my lab to Canandaigua, New York, where 4-H Camp Bristol Hills is located. The natural beauty of the area and the camp is breathtaking, especially when the sun sets. Before each week starts, the camp staff had a potluck lunch meeting to get ready for the campers’ arrivals. Registration then began at around 1:30/2 PM for the campers. In order to recruit for the project, I set up a huge poster and table exemplifying all the fun activities and crafts we would do in Health and the Brain, and also talked to parents and campers who were waiting in line. Week after week, I became also more accustomed to and more successful in recruiting campers to participate in Health & the Brain. As an afternoon recreation activity, many campers were excited about drawing brains on swim caps and making DNA using pipe cleaners and beads, along with many other hands-on games and activities. It was so interesting to find kids who were so excited about science and wanted to sign up immediately, and to find others who were more curious and trying to find something that they felt passionate in and wanted to give science a try. After getting everything organized and settling down after the registration period, I would eat dinner with the campers. One of my favorite times during the weeks was being able to meet new kids during mealtimes and talk about their different interests, ranging from horseback riding to TV shows. At night, I would participate in a warm campfire and an evening program, where the counselors and campers get together to do all kinds of fun games with different stations to get the campers to make new friends and be comfortable being themselves at camp.

Health & the Brain had a lot of really bright and curious kids, which was very inspiring. Teaching the curricula at camp was very successful. Many of them knew so much already and had so many questions for me; I’m not sure if I even knew as much as they do when I were their age! A lot of the campers were very inquisitive about different cancer issues and genetic questions and also interested in eating healthier and exercising well. Many had a lot of prior knowledge on vitamins and minerals and where they come from, such as iron from meats and protein or calcium from dairy products. They were also very keen on wearing their “brain swim caps” into the pool and showing off their DNAs to friends. The kids told me again and again how much fun they had and how much they had learned. Many of them were excited about getting a head start in school on the different topics revolving around neuroscience, genetics, and nutrition. Hearing great answers from campers made me feel like I really made a difference in their lives. For the processed foods activity in the nutrition curriculum, the campers split up into two groups: both of them are workers at food company’s factory, but in order to emphasize the differences between highly processed and unprocessed foods, one company processes the core ingredient (styrofoam ball) highly using trans fat (clay), high fructose corn syrup (glitter glue), etc., while the other company only cuts and packages the product. This activity, while very entertaining and involves a lot of the campers’ favorite hands on materials, like clay and beads, also starts the discussion for which product represents a healthier food choice and why.

During my last week at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills, I was able to work with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) campers. I learned that part of working in the field for research involves flexibility, which was required to work around the STEM camper’s busy schedules in order to allow them to have the opportunity to be in Health & the Brain! During Monday through Wednesday, while I worked with other resident campers, other Cornell students working with Professor Franck from the Physics department worked with the STEM campers on building radios and satellite dishes. During my time with them on Thursday and Friday, they asked so many great questions for each topic, especially neuroscience. They knew so many things about the brain that were very advanced. Many of them had watched or read a lot about the brain and knew about different parts of the brain or case studies of special brain trauma, such as memory mechanisms in the hippocampus, or Phineas Gage, the American railroad construction foreman who had an accident that damaged most of his frontal lobe.

Even though each camp session lasts only one week, being together and meeting all these new campers makes one feel very connected to the camp and the kids, especially during moments where the entire camp gets together to hold hands and sing the goodnight song together. When I had to leave at the end of each week, despite being content and proud of a great week, I also felt an underlying sense of sadness to have to leave such a beautiful community where all the kids find places to truly be themselves and find best friends. The camp environment never ceased to amaze me; the campers were brimming with enthusiasm and the counselors still managed to top it week after week. While I’m saddened by the conclusion of my time at camp, I’m also very happy to have made so many great friends, amazing memories, and learned so many things!

Lindsay Dower '17

Lindsay Dower '17

I want to give special thanks to Dr. Reyna, Lindsay Dower ‘17, Dr. Priscila Brust-Renck '15, Dr. Allison Hermann and Tim Davis for allowing me to have the opportunity to be a part of such an exciting outreach project. Your continued support and guidance throughout the project was a huge factor for its success. I also want to thank the staff of 4-H Camp Bristol Hills for welcoming me with open arms, supporting me, and inspiring me with their enthusiasm and hard work! My internship with CCE Health and the Brain Neuroscience Outreach at 4-H Camp Bristol Hills has been such a memorable time. I’m incredibly grateful for the wonderful experience I’ve had this summer, which has allowed me to better understand not only how scientific research labs work and learn the techniques necessary in the future for my own work, but also the opportunity to conduct actual in-field research. With my love for working with kids and being able to get the full log-cabin camp experience, my time at camp has been absolutely phenomenal. This experience has allowed me to solidify my decision to pursue clinical psychology graduate work as a career, and inspired me to take on all opportunities with enthusiasm and determination.

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