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Department of Psychology Newsletter: Fall 2014

The graduating Psychology and Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience (BCN) students come together with over 5,000 family and friends for graduation at the Crisler Center in 2014.  

In this issue you will find...
1.   A Letter from Our Chair
2.  The Michael J. Vizas Graduate Practicum Fund Helps Accelerated Degree Program (ADP) student
3.  Giving Back to the Community Through the Michigan Mentorship Program
4.  Psychology Student Travels to Brazil to Work With Orphans
5.  Are You Addicted to Food?
6.  How to Give Yourself Good Advice
7.  Life After Graduation: Putting Psychology to Work

A Letter From Our Chair

When I graduated from Michigan as a Psychology major 22 years ago, I never imagined that I would return as a professor one day, and I certainly never dreamed that I’d chair the department.  It is a tremendous honor and privilege to run the very best Psychology department in the world.  My Michigan Psychology degree has been a passport to many opportunities over the years.  My experiences in the classroom and the lab have been invaluable and the network that I developed has been critical to my professional development.  Many of those opportunities to engage in meaningful work as an undergraduate remain, and our wonderful staff and faculty have developed many new initiatives aimed to prepare our students for intellectual innovation, meaningful contributions to our community, and have given us the capability to help our students receive the training necessary to move to the next level.  Similarly, our doctoral training program is second to none and our graduates are well-placed in good jobs.

I took over as chair this summer after our previous chair, Dr. Robert Sellers, was tapped to become the new Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion.  I thank Rob for his tireless service to the department and look forward to seeing the innovations that he brings to his new position.  I hope to build on the forward momentum that Rob brought to the department.

-Stephanie Rowley
Department of Psychology, Interim Chair

The Michael J. Vizas Graduate Practicum Fund Helps Accelerated Degree Program

The Michael J Vizas Graduate Practicum Fund established by Kathryn and Robert Vizas provides support for students in the Department of Psychology by funding work with children with learning disabilities in K-12 classrooms, in clinical settings, or in the community.

Alexa Ellis is working on a Masters of Science in Psychology.  She discusses her work with children:

Tell us about the child you worked with this summer?

This summer I had the opportunity to work with a boy named Sam (not his real name) who is 11 years old.  Sam has quadriplegic cerebral palsy and struggles with poor verbal skills, coordination, energy and attention span.

Although Sam is 2 years behind in his schooling, he is a very smart kid who is eager to learn; he loves playing math and card games, specifically Skip-Bo, and he has an amazing sense of humor.

Why are you interested in working with children with learning disabilities?

I strive to make a difference in their lives, and with the opportunity I had this summer, I not only got to make a difference in Sam’s life, but he also made a huge difference in mine.

How did this experience change the way you approach your future career?

This experience of working with Sam inspired my interest to work on mathematical cognition and achievement in children with learning difficulties. Ultimately, I hope to make an impact in the special needs education system.

Giving Back to the Community Through the Michigan Mentorship Program

The MICHIGAN Mentorship Program has proudly completed its 20th year.  Through 1:1 relationships with University students, the program seeks to improve the personal and academic skills of students in Ann Arbor Public Schools who are having difficulty succeeding.  More than 500 youngsters have benefited from the guidance, support, and friendship of 180 Mentors in the last 3 years.

Francesca George, former mentor and Psychology graduate, explains the impact of the Michigan Mentorship Program:

"During my time at Mitchell Elementary, as a mentor through the Michigan Mentorship Program,  I had become increasingly aware of the high demand for clothing, not only for the students but also for the parents. The child I mentored for two semesters wore the same clothing almost everyday.  With only a couple weeks left in the semester,  I pulled all of my resources together in an attempt to collect many articles of new or gently used clothing for the Mitchell Community.

Throughout the process, I contacted many different organizations, schools, clothing stores, and families.  In total, I collected 441 donations of clothing for the students and parents of Mitchell Elementary. The donations opened new doors and alleviated the financial burden of numerous families. Overall, my experience was extremely rewarding. I took what I had learned in my Michigan Psychology courses and applied it to real world situations."

Psychology Student Travels to Brazil to Work With Orphans

The University of Michigan Psychology Honors Program allows advanced students to collaborate directly with a faculty mentor to complete an original research project. Results from honors projects have been reported in scientific journals and presented at professional conferences.

For students with strong academic records and an interest in research, the honors program can serve as a capstone for their undergraduate studies, and as important preparation for graduate study.

Christina Naegeli is one of our honors students who had the opportunity to travel to Sao Paulo, Brazil to conduct research.

What is your research question?

I am trying to identify a cultural difference between how orphaned children are raised in Brazil compared to the United States. I spent six months in 2013 working in orphanages in São Paulo, Brazil, and was impressed by the organization, discipline, and general well-being of these beautiful children. This led me to wonder about my home country and how we raise these children (the most popular method today being foster homes). How do these two institutions differ? What aspects of how orphans are raised in Brazil could improve our system of foster homes? I think we can learn so much about ourselves and our systems by seeing the way other people do things, and there is always room to both learn and improve!  

How do you go about answering these research questions?

The majority of my work involves intensive interviews with the directors of orphanages or the person/people in charge of the foster home. I ask questions about how they run their homes, questions about their own beliefs and values, and situational questions to gauge how they react in different scenarios.

What is the most rewarding part of this research?

I am extremely passionate about the well-being of children and believe that childhood is the time in which we develop our outlook of world. I want to know what works and what doesn't in hope of making an unfortunate situation a little more positive.

Are You Addicted to Food?

Can you really be addicted to food?  Are there certain foods that are more addicting than others?  Sally Kim, Psychology undergraduate student and lab manager for Dr. Ashley Gearhardt, explains how the Gearhardt lab tackles these tough questions.

"While being a relatively new field, Food Addiction has increased rapidly not only in public interest but also in the amount of research that is being produced. The Gearhardt lab examines whether people can become addicted to certain highly processed foods, and figures out ways for people to combat this addiction.  This is important because while food is a
necessity for all people, it is the consumption of these highly processed foods that has become problematic.  This is neither suitable nor healthy for us.

The Gearhardt lab uses a  multi-method approach that includes neuroimaging, eye-tracking, and measurement development. We use a simulated fast food restaurant equipped with stainless steel cooking equipment, digital menu boards, and aroma marketing technology to examine eating behavior in a more realistic environment.

Potentially addictive foods may lead to widespread clinical and public health consequences. We hope that what we produce in our lab can be translated to the public."  

Please visit

How to Give Yourself Good Advice

Ethan Kross, Associate Professor of Psychology, is an expert on how people regulate their emotions.  He has been given several awards for his innovative research.

Tell us about a recent interesting finding from your research.

For a while now my students and I have been struck by how easy it is for people to help their friends "work through" problems, but when it comes to their own issues, they often flounder -- they worry, ruminate and become distressed. In a new line of work, we're finding that to cue people to think about themselves using their own name leads people to think about themselves as though they were someone else, which powerfully enhances their ability to cope effectively.

What does this tell us about emotions that is new and surprising?

We all have an internal monologue that we engage in from time to time. An inner voice that guides us throughout the day. These data tell us that the language people use to refer to the self as they engage in this process matters for coping.

How can we use this knowledge in our everyday lives?

The next time you're upset, ask yourself (silently), "Why is [your name] feeling this way?", instead of, "Why am I feeling this way?"

Life After Graduation: Putting Psychology to Work

Brittany Schmitt, class of 2012 Psychology undergraduate, took Professor Brian Malley’s Ethnographic Research and Writing course.  She writes about how studying psychology helped her after graduation:

"This class, more than any other I took while an undergraduate psychology student at U of M, helped my work as a current Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, a small west African country.  Much like an ethnographer I spent my first three months in the village observing the current habits, attitudes, and practices of the people.  The cultural observation and interpretation skills I learned in Professor Malley's class were instrumental.  For example, in Burkina Faso, being overweight is seen as a good thing.  In Burkina people celebrate being overweight and congratulated me when I appeared to have gained weight.  

With time I began to understand that being overweight here was a sign of wealth and meant one had enough money to eat well everyday.  Once I began to understand people’s attitudes towards food here I focused my work on teaching proper nutrition.   Ethnography, I believe, is an incredibly useful and practical science.  I have used it to help explain cultural practices,  to secure grant funding, and solicit help from local village counterparts.  I feel my background in psychology prepared me to be open to understanding people here and gave me the skills necessary to be a successful volunteer."