Four faculty celebrate grants for research in emotions, memory, body language, and preparing undergrads for STEM research.

Impact Stories

Major Psychology Grants

Four faculty celebrate grants for research in emotions, memory, body language, and preparing undergrads for STEM research

From investigating the resiliency of young adults to turning back the clock on memory for older populations, four professors in CMC’s Psychological Sciences department are looking at how we mentally manage our world. And their outstanding work has been rewarded with five large, highly competitive, external grants—virtually unprecedented for professors at small liberal arts colleges, especially in a single year—to fund research and further teaching at CMC.

Profs. Stacey N. Doan, Sharda Umanath, Alison Harris, and Cathy Reed share details about their research projects.

Stacey N. Doan: Emotions, stress, and health

Doan, associate professor of psychological sciences, received a Ho Family Foundation Special Programs grant to investigate resilience training for young adults and a National Institute of Child Health and Development grant to explore children’s academic competence in contexts of risk. She was also awarded a RAPID grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on families with young children. Doan is the director of the Berger Institute.

For our NSF grant, we have collected data on over 150 families in the Inland Empire and interviewed just as many. We have several exciting findings that we are preparing to write up. To illustrate, we have found that mothers who were trained in a relational savoring exercise—an intervention that encourages them to experience and reflect on times when they were a source of strength for their children—were more likely to engage in health behaviors, but also had children with lower levels of behavioral problems. With regards to the Ho grant, we are in the exciting stage of developing an evidence-based intervention to reduce stress and improve well-being in college students.

Sharda Umanath: Aging, memory, and reclaiming marginal knowledge

Umanath, an assistant professor of psychology and the director of CMC’s Memory and Aging Lab (UMA Lab), was recently awarded a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. She studies knowledge and its influence on memory.

It’s a five-year project starting June 2021 that aims to empirically define a zone of proximal retrieval, where inaccessible knowledge resides and can be reclaimed with the aid of prompts and other learning strategies.

My research team—including CMC undergraduates, as well as Dr. Jen Coane at Colby College and her lab group—will use general knowledge questions to pin down the marginal knowledge (MK) base with eventually about 200 volunteers, defining the buckets of knowledge retrieval failure in healthy aging along the way. Then we’ll apply the abundant literature on effective study strategies for learning new information to see what works best to retrieve and retain MK in adults, documenting how that differs in younger and older adults.

Alison Harris: Perceiving emotional body language

Harris, Cook-Ostby associate professor of psychological sciences and neuroscience and George R. Roberts fellow, received a National Science Foundation grant for collaborative research with CMC colleague Cathy Reed. A cognitive neuroscientist, she is interested in how activity in the brain gives rise to complex cognitive behaviors, and is the principal investigator of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at CMC.

The focus of my project is how we perceive other people’s body movements, and which brain systems contribute to this ability. From jumping jacks to jumping for joy, other people’s body movements are a rich source of cues to what they are thinking and feeling.

My project is designed to carefully compare action execution and observation. Additionally, we are looking at the role of emotional content in the simulation process: does watching someone jump for joy produce a stronger effect than observing jumping jacks, or is it the other way around? This question could be particularly relevant for determining how mu rhythms (a type of brain wave recorded with electroencephalography) are affected in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social communication, which is a third aim of the project.

Cathy Reed: STEM research opportunities for undergraduates

Reed is the McElwee Family Professor of Psychology and a George R. Roberts Fellow. She received a National Science Foundation “Preparing Undergraduates for Research in STEM Using Electrophysiology (PURSUE)” grant and is co-PI on the NSF grant with Alison Harris (For details about the collaborative research with Harris, please see Alison Harris Q&A). Reed’s research examines influences of the body on attention, perception, and emotional processing.

The goal of the PURSUE project —Preparing Undergraduates for Research in STEM Using Electrophysiology— is to develop course materials and tools to help faculty train undergraduates in cognitive electrophysiology and engage them in authentic, collaborative research. Cognitive Electrophysiology is a direct measure of brain activity measured through the scalp. Few colleges offer such training at an undergraduate level, despite its relevance to STEM-related career opportunities.

To meet this need, we have developed and disseminated information resources to assist faculty in engaging undergraduates in research. Based on information from faculty requests, our materials will be used to train approximately 2,678 undergraduate students and 845 graduate students this year. Further, we have built a cognitive electrophysiology teaching/research community to support faculty across the country and world.

For our five-year, $2-million NSF Level II grant, we will complete a semester-long cognitive electrophysiology course that can be taught face-to-face and online. We will hold workshops to guide faculty through course adoption and implementation.

“… we have built a cognitive electrophysiology teaching/research community to support faculty across the country and world.”

—Prof. Cathy Reed