Studying Parental Responses to Newborns Fills Professor’s Day
In 2002 UnJa L. Hayes interviewed at five institutions of higher education for a post-doctoral fellowship in psychology. All of them—UMass Amherst, Mount Sinai, Georgia State University, Wayne State University and University of Texas Medical Branch—invited her to join them. “Some offered more perks,” says Hayes. “But UMass Amherst was my first choice because of the world-renowned reputation of the neuroendocrinologists in the department—particularly Geert de Vries. Just a few doors down the hall from me are scientists who have made major impacts in their areas of research. And I have wonderful undergraduate students whom I teach and who assist me in my own research.”
Hayes, who this past summer was hired as assistant professor, is poised to make an impact of her own, having already published several peer-review publications and abstracts about her work. She studies parental behaviors with a specific interest in the transition from neglectful/aggressive reactions to motivated, caring parenting of newborns. Using the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) as her model, she aims to understand not only the etiology of abusive behavior directed toward neonates, but also how the behavior can be inhibited and replaced with more appropriate reactions. “Although my research program has only just begun,” she says, “I believe that my contribution thus far has been refocusing attention to the study of parental bonds. I’m sure that this research will help address social issues like child abuse, neglect and abandonment—also known as baby dumping—and possibly postpartum depression as well.”
“I started my undergraduate career at Dartmouth thinking I would become a doctor, like so many of my peers,” recalls Hayes. “But in the last module of my Introduction to Psychology course freshman year, my professor described how our behaviors are linked to the brain. It was fascinating! Never had I been exposed to such information.” Hayes followed her newly kindled passion by majoring in psychology and going on to graduate school at the University of Southern California. Her post-doctoral experience at UMass Amherst was supported by a minority fellowship from the American Psychological Association. With de Vries as her advisor at the Center for Neuroendocrine Studies in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, she studied sex differences in parental behavior of monogamous voles.
Hayes credits her success so far to a humble upbringing and supportive family. Taught how to read by her father, she credits him with exposing her to new information or reinforcing lessons learned in school until the level of work exceeded his abilities. “Success,” she emphasizes, “was a family accomplishment.” Hayes also acknowledges the enthusiasm, sincerity, and patience of teachers, professors and mentors in helping her attain her doctorate. “I am the first member of my family to do so, and this accomplishment has inspired some others to pursue graduate education as well.”
When not in her lab or in the classroom, Hayes plays rugby with the UMass Amherst Women’s Rugby Team. “I’m also interested in community service. Recently I volunteered to be a tutor for the Literacy Program.”
The Center for Neuroendocrine Studies (CNS) in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UMass Amherst consists of research groups of seventeen faculty members who share an interest in understanding the relationships among hormones, the brain, physiology, and behavior. The specific research interests of CNS members are diverse, and include the relationship of environmental pollutants to reproduction, the role of nutrition in determining fertility, behavioral and environmental influences on neurohormone production and hormonal response, sexual differentiation of nervous system and behavior, neuroendocrine control of circadian rhythms, hormonal regulation of behaviors, and more. Research subjects include zebra fish, naked mole rats, and prairie voles, in addition to the more traditional rats and mice.
November 7, 2005