CRF Announces 6 Faculty to Join Family Research Scholars Program

The Center for Research on Families (CRF) has announced the selection of six faculty members from across campus as the 2014-2015 Family Research Scholars. They were chosen to participate in the 12th cohort of the program on the basis of their promising work in family-related research.

The Family Research Scholars Program provides selected faculty with the time, technical expertise, peer mentorship, and national expert consultation to prepare a large grant proposal for their research support. The goal of the program is to bring together a diverse, multi-disciplinary group of faculty to foster innovation and collaboration across research areas related to the family. The six new Family Research Scholars represents an array of disciplines and research interests from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, College of Natural Sciences and the School of Public Health and Health Science and across five departments.

The new scholars are:

David Arnold, professor of psychology, addresses how children from low socioeconomic status (SES) families are dramatically underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines. Arnold will be developing a grant proposal for a project titled “Understanding and Promoting Emergent Math Development in low-SES Children.” Arnold’s proposed project will examine differences in early math experiences as a function of SES to shed light on the SES math-achievement gap. In addition, he will develop and test a parent-based program designed to foster early math interest and skills. The project will provide new information about causal factors in the achievement gap, and could eventually provide an important tool to help support STEM participation among underrepresented groups.

Sylvia Brandt, associate professor of resource economics and public policy, studies how asthma impacts a child’s quality of life. In her proposed project, “New Methods to Assess the Burden of Childhood Asthma in Massachusetts,” Brandt and a group of leading epidemiologists and policymakers in Massachusetts will develop a risk assessment of the burden of asthma onset due to pollution exposure.

Gerald Downes, associate professor of biology, examines cellular and molecular mechanisms that are essential for neural network function. Epilepsies are the fourth most common neurological disorder in the United States, and many forms are resistant to current treatments. As a family research scholar, Downes will be developing a proposal titled, “Using Zebrafish to Better Understand and Treat Epilepsies.” The aim of this project is to leverage the advantages of zebrafish for rapid genetic and behavioral analysis to develop new animal models of human epilepsies. These new models will be used to investigate cellular and molecular mechanisms disrupted in epilepsies and screen for new antiepileptic drugs.

Tatishe Nteta, assistant professor of political science, focuses his research on the contradictory theories that fathers’ political viewpoints are correlated with the gender of their children. One set of scholars has found that daughters lead fathers to support more conservative positions and to identify with the Republican Party. Others have found that men with daughters exhibit more liberal attitudes on a range of issues, indicating support for the Democratic Party. Nteta will be developing a grant proposal titled, “The Political Effects of Children: Public Opinion, Political Behavior, and the Transformative Impact of Fatherhood.” Using a multi-method approach, this project seeks to provide a more definitive analysis of the impact that fathering a daughter has on the political attitudes and behaviors of men in the United States.

Katherine Reeves, assistant professor of epidemiology, examines weight loss as a means of cancer prevention. Empirical evidence that weight loss can reduce cancer risk is lacking, in part because it is difficult to identify cohorts of adults who can lose weight and maintain the weight loss. Reeves suggests that the emergence of bariatric surgery provides options for achieving and maintaining weight loss among morbidly obese adults. Therefore, studying this population provides an opportunity for a natural experiment to evaluate if weight loss can reduce cancer risk. Reeves will be preparing a grant application titled “Cancer Incidence Following Weight Loss Surgery” to the National Cancer Institute to evaluate if bariatric surgery can reduce cancer risk using data obtained through the Cancer Research Network (CRN). Reeves’ intended benefit of this research is to promote the health of American families, many of which are touched by obesity, cancer or both.

Lisa Sanders, associate professor of psychology, investigates auditory selective attention, speech perception, and the ways in which selective attention supports the complex task of comprehending spoken language. Sanders will be developing a grant proposal for a project entitled “Improving Preschooler’s Ability to Predict and Comprehend Speech.” Her project will use behavioral and electrophysiological assessments of 3- to 5-year-old children’s abilities to study a language’s sound patterns to make predictions about upcoming speech sounds, and to efficiently allocate attention to the least predictable segments in continuous speech. Sanders is interested in how each of these cognitive skills contributes to successful understanding of speech under ideal quiet conditions and in more complex noisy environments. Identifying the obstacles facing 3- to 5-year-old children in understanding spoken language will inform the creation of interventions that target the neural systems involved in language comprehension and improve learning environments for this population. Improved language skill in young children is expected to support success of individual children and their families.

During the scholar year, faculty participate in an interdisciplinary seminar that includes concrete instruction on the details of successful proposal submission and the resources of the university, individualized methodology consultation, and information about relevant funding agencies. This process culminates in the submission of a research proposal to a major funding agency. For scholars, the program offers extra time through a course release, support and expertise. One current scholar applauds the program for giving him “the time, space, structure, and guidance to understand and get started in the world of large grants in a way that would not have been possible otherwise as an assistant professor.” Since the program first began in 2003, 62 Family Research Scholars have submitted more than 141 proposals.

CRF’s mission is to increase research on family issues, to build a multidisciplinary community of researchers who are studying issues of relevance to families, to connect national and internationally prominent family researchers with UMass faculty and students, to provide advanced data analytic methods training and consultation, and to disseminate family research findings to scholars, families, practitioners, and policymakers. Research at CRF encompasses disciplines as diverse as the life sciences, social sciences, public health and nursing, education, and natural resources.

CRF is a research center of the College of Natural Sciences and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and has affiliated faculty from departments across campus. For more information on the Family Research Scholars Program or the Center for Research on Families, contact associate director Wendy Varner at or 545-3593.