Fall 2017 Newsletter | New Faces

Adam Grabell, Assistant Professor, Clinical Psychology Read more

Sandy Kalmus, Compliance Administrator Read more

Marcela Fernandez-Peters, Visiting Assistant Professor, Behavioral Neuroscience Read more

Holly Laws, Lecturer, Clinical Psychology, Center for Research on Families Read more

Jessica Matthews, Postdoctoral Research Scholar, Rudd Adoption Research Program Read more

PBS welcomes new Graduate StudentsRead more

Hillary Halpern, graduate student in Clinical Psychology, lovingly welcomed her daughter Evan Mae Halpern to her family on September 11! 

PBS Welcomes Adam Grabell

Research Area: Clinical Psychology; Faculty page

What is the focus of your current research?

The question that my research focuses on is: “How does emotion regulation work in early childhood and what are the parts of this system that contribute to the most common forms of emerging psychopathology?” Our lab is interested in how early emotion regulation relates to the trans-diagnostic symptom of irritability (i.e., touchiness, grumpiness, annoyance) in early childhood.  Everyone has some level of irritability, and expressions of irritability are very common in early childhood, but irritability at the severe end is a core symptom of nearly a dozen DSM-5 diagnoses. Understanding the etiology of early clinical irritability may advance mental health care for children falling across a wide swath of diagnoses.

We believe that how children regulate negative affect can help us understand when early irritability is normative and when it is a risk factor for chronic psychopathology.  Between the ages of 3-5 years children are rapidly developing their emotion regulation skills, but we know little about how emotion regulation works at this age. Young children have limited verbal abilities to articulate their emotion regulation strategies, and examining emotion regulation-related brain functioning with most neuroimaging technologies, such as fMRI, isn’t really feasible. Moreover, it is challenging to identify poor emotion regulation that might be signaling mental illness at an age when frequent tantrums and outbursts are considered developmentally normative.  Our lab employs a multimodal approach to study how children respond to emotional challenges like frustration at different levels of analysis. We measure how children’s brains are responding to frustration using a newer neuroimaging technique called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), which uses near-infrared light to measure changes in oxygenated hemoglobin in the outer cortex.  Near-infrared light at a specific frequency is actually able to travel through the scalp, skull, and meninges and penetrate the outer centimeter or so of brain tissue.  We also look at children’s facial expressions while they are frustrated by coding the contraction of each individual muscle in the face. Children self-rate their emotions in-vivo and parents rate the child’s ability to regulate emotion in daily life.  Combined, these simultaneous streams of data occurring at different levels provide a window into the mechanics of emerging emotion regulation in children ranging from low to severe irritability.

What drew you to UMass?

I was so excited when I saw that the clinical area in PBS was hiring!  It’s an amazing department with faculty whose work I have admired for years.  There are so many great scientists here studying children, self-regulation, and psychopathology from different angles, with different tools, and with different questions, and you can see from their grants and publications that they’re all collaborating on these really cool projects.  I wanted to be part of that scene!  My wife and I also loved the idea of coming back to Massachusetts after spending a couple years living outside of Boston.  We’re now closer to family and friends which has been really nice.

What are you looking for in potential graduate students?

I’m looking for enthusiastic and hardworking graduate students who are curious about the developing brain and emerging mental illness.  I’m particularly looking for prospective students who have their own unique research questions they are passionate about.  Students in my lab are expected to not just apprentice in collecting and analyzing data on early childhood irritability, they should be designing their own studies and taking the lead on papers that reflect their point of view. I am also looking for graduate students who see themselves as future clinical scientists.  In other words, individuals who want both exceptional clinical training and research training.  Finally, openness to getting down on the floor and working with preschool kids is a must!  Working with young children can be hilarious, ridiculous, and frustrating all at the same time.  

What are you looking forward to in the next few years at UMass?

The first thing I’m looking forward to is finishing setting up my lab!  As those on the 6th floor likely heard on a daily basis, my lab underwent major construction through the summer and early fall.  Right now we are setting up equipment, painting walls, and ordering furniture.  My undergraduates and lab coordinator are busy training in how to use all of our equipment so we can launch our first major research project: a study examining deliberate emotion regulation and the progression of irritability across early childhood.  Deliberate emotion regulation comprises meta-cognitive effortful regulation strategies that children typically learn in psychotherapy, such as taking deep breaths and reappraising.  To capture this we developed a paradigm that simulates a psychotherapy session and is compatible with fNIRS.  The study is funded by an NIMH K23 grant and we are excited to get it going.  I’m also really looking forward to bringing graduate students into my lab and to starting up new, collaborative projects that interface with other faculty across PBS.


PBS welcomes Sandy Kalmus as Compliance Administrator

PBS welcomes Sandy Kalmus as our new Compliance Administrator. Sandy will manage the records and procedures for Department Human Subjects and undergraduate research participants recruited through the SONA system. She will also track the requirements of labs and their personnel, update the internal departmental database, and handle key requests. Additionally, Sandy will assist Laura Wildman-Hanlon with faculty searches, also serving as a typist and producer of departmental documents such as letters of recommendation, syllabi and exams.

Sandy is an experienced Microsoft Excel user, often teaching herself new operations and formulas. She started her college education at Ithaca, meeting a great group of friends there that she is still close with today. She completed her Bachelor’s Degree at UMass, majoring in Sociology. She has two children, a daughter attending UMass majoring in Japanese Language and Literature, and a son attending Greenfield Community College. An outdoor enthusiast, Sandy enjoys hiking, biking, and running as well as guiding zip-line trips at Berkshire East in Charlemont, MA. A few goals Sandy has reached this year include climbing Mt. Washington and repairing her car with her son and boyfriend. She is an avid DC comic fan, secretly appreciating their rival Marvel’s extensive collection of movies. Say hello to Sandy and test her sci-fi/fantasy knowledge!

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PBS Welcomes Marcela Fernandez-Peters

Research Area: Behavioral Neuroscience; Faculty page

Originally from Costa Rica, Marcela Fernandez-Peters was inspired by the great diversity of wildlife that exists there. She developed a desire to learn about the different adaptations and behaviors of native animals. After majoring in Biology at the Universidad de Costa Rica, she began to concentrate on the world of animal communication.

She completed her Master’s degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, studying vocal and chemical communication in the Neotropical singing mouse. This species is unique in that it produces a stereotypical advertising call that is audible to the human ear. Most species of rodents produce ultra-sonic vocalizations that we cannot hear.

Fernandez-Peters went on to the Department of Psychology at Cornell University for her Doctorate, studying the neural mechanisms of chemical communication in hamsters with Robert Johnston. This was a significant change for her, coming from a background in biology. She was pursuing a new direction, exploring behavior, and this became a good fit for her. Fernandez-Peters notes, “When I first started, my tendency was to consider the diversity and ecology of animals. Soon I began to focus strictly on their behaviors.”

Her experience with vocal and multi-modal communication in animals allowed her to readily delve into the subject of ultra-sonic vocalizations (USVs). She wanted to know how rodents were using these high-frequency signals to communicate during social interactions. At the time, the biomedical research community was very interested in this type of vocalization in mice and rats. Fernandez-Peters contributed data on the hamster, an animal model used to study aggression and sexual behavior, which was well-received. Although, most of her research has been done on laboratory animals, her background in the diverse tropical species of Costa Rica led her to value a comparative approach in neuroscience, seeking to learn and discover new things about a greater variety of animals.

The significance of USVs is still debatable. Although, they cannot be considered as a form of “rodent language”, they are at least signals that contain acoustic signatures that express social motivation and can vary dynamically with social context. Humans use a variety of characteristics within their vocalizations to express different emotions and to activate our senses and responses. By working with hamsters, scientists have a good opportunity to study these signatures in greater detail.

The hamster is a unique animal model to study because it’s solitary and very aggressive. But it also exhibits a high motivation to socialize with other individuals around them. The hamster can recognize and identify individuals through their odor. They keep track of who their close neighbors and mates are.

During her Postdoc at Washington State University Vancouver, Fernandez-Peters worked in the Hearing and Communication Lab with Christine Portfors. There she gained a great deal of experience in neuroscience techniques, such as electrophysiology and tissue processing. She studied courtship USVs in mice, specifically the processing of them in the primary auditory cortex. Their lab worked with the idea that USVs are salient and natural sounds to animals. They asked questions about how these natural sounds are processed in the auditory system at the level of a single neuron.

Fernandez-Peters has started a new Visiting Assistant Professor position in the UMass Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Behavioral Neuroscience Program. Her interest in communication between animals will be embraced as she works alongside Luke Remage-Healey, studying both the production and perception of vocalizations in the zebra finch. She will be exploring the neural basis of communication and how social context modulates communication signals.

Fernandez-Peters states, “The study of communication between mammals has not advanced as much as the study of songbirds. The neural system used in songbird communication contains very distinct characteristics and functionality. It will be great to work with an animal model that has been more successful in answering questions about vocal communication. The best evidence we have that pairs natural behaviors with neuroendocrinology has come from the study of birdsong. Perhaps I will return to the study of mammalian communication with new questions to ask, based on what I have learned while working with songbirds.”

During her Doctoral studies, she gained some experience working with hormones and the effects of steroids in the production of USVs in hamsters. Further, she examined the rapid effects of estrogens on the brain which resembles some of the work of professors in the Behavioral Neuroscience Program. The modulatory effects of estrogen are something Fernandez-Peters finds fascinating. She hopes to see how these effects modulate communication in the zebra finch and how that will interact with the activation of other parts of the brain that are important for social behavior. The opportunity to gain hands-on experience working with the zebra finches will be new and exciting for her.

Fernandez-Peters has followed Remage-Healey’s work for some time and they share many research interests. There are also many people at UMass that are interested in neuroendocrinology and behavior. “It will be great to learn from this community. It’s much more fun and productive when many people have the same interests. We will be able to debate and stimulate our brains, generating new ideas through our exchanges,” she says.

Her position at UMass was inspired by a similar position being done in the Biology Department. They organize a fellowship that is a great fit for someone who still needs postdoctoral experience and additional teaching experience. Her position differs from a traditional Assistant Professor role in that she will be working in the already established Healey Lab, with Remage-Healey as her advisor.

She is very thankful for the opportunity to include teaching seminars in her experience at UMass. Her fall seminar, Psych 391BA: Hormonal Influences on Human Behavior, is related to her own research interests. She explains, “I’m having a lot of fun with it. The focus of the seminar will be to examine the studies that have been done in humans and how animal research compares to findings in human research. We will be delving into how hormones modulate human behavior such as aggression, trust, altruism, love, and sexual orientation. We are blending aspects of social psychology, behavioral endocrinology, and behavioral neuroscience.”

Outside of the University, Fernandez-Peters enjoys theater and performing arts. While she was attending Cornell, she acted in plays performed in Spanish. She hopes to learn more about the UMass Latino Community and be involved. She is also a big admirer of the Native American culture. Before starting her PhD studies, Fernandez-Peters coordinated a Summer Research Experience Program for Native American and Pacific Islander undergraduate students in Costa Rica with the Organization for Tropical Studies. Living in the more rural environment of Western Massachusetts is also something she is looking forward to.  


PBS Welcomes Holly Laws

Research Area: Clinical Psychology; Faculty page

Holly Laws, Lecturer and Research Methodologist, developed a significant interest in social justice work after graduating from Wesleyan University. She spent time performing service through Habitat for Humanity and working with educational reform non-profits in New York. She worked on research teams, handling qualitative interviews and finding out more about the relationships between children, their families and schools.

Laws found that many school teachers she met wanted to reach out to the families of their students, seeking to help their educational experience. However, the teachers were limited in how much they could get involved. Laws decided, ”I would rather be a part of something that is engaging families because that is what I think is going to matter most in changing kids’ lives for the better.” This realization influenced her decision to pursue psychology and study the close relationships present in families.

Laws began searching for clinical programs that would give her training in direct services and have more of a focus on family dynamics rather than individual experience. She notes, “Close family relationships are one of the most important influences in someone’s life.” The University of Massachusetts really stood out by having a thriving child and family subspecialty as well as housing the Center for Research on Families (CRF).

Laws went on to earn a Doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology at UMass. Her advisors, Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Director of CRF, and Aline Sayer, Methodology Program Director, had a great influence on her work today. Family methodology is her focus, which involves looking at dynamics between people over time. Areas that Laws has researched include close relationships between parents and children, coregulation of cortisol (a stress hormone) in newlywed couples, and patient therapist dyads in chronic depression treatment.

She hopes to find out more about how close relationships influence mental health. Laws has connected with the task of bringing families back into mainstream psychology norms using quantitative methods and data analysis. There are unique problems with modeling family data that require special methods. Laws enjoys figuring out new ways to break down and process these data sets.

After earning her PhD, Laws worked as a Postdoc at the Yale School of Medicine. There she built collaborations with other researchers who called upon her rare specialization in family methodology and dyadic data analysis.

Recently she received a grant to run her own study, looking at how couples are handling the return of a partner in the Armed Forces from deployment. Laws studies survey data, comparing male and female veterans and seeing how their partners are either supporting or not supporting their transition. Before securing the grant, Laws explains, “I was thinking about how much life events coeffect people. As veterans go through something, their partner goes through something too. They are affected by their partner’s transition. I’m interested in the stress response and how couples go through things together.” Laws will be concluding her study soon, which has been a very beneficial experience for her.

Laws is thrilled to be starting her new position as a Lecturer specializing in Research Methodology at UMass. Here she will be working with many others interested in researching couples and families. “It’s amazing to be in a community where people know that the study of families is important. The idea that I could collaborate with people, bounce ideas off them and help them with their analyses is so attractive to me. It really feels like I’m coming back to a family research community, compared with coming from a place where I [felt like I] was the only family researcher,” she says.

As the Co-Director of the Methodology Consulting Program at the Center for Research on Families (CRF), she will be supporting the faculty members taking part in their Family Research Scholars program (FRS) by providing methodological consultation. The FRS program provides faculty with the concrete instruction and methodological expertise needed to submit competitive grants to fund their research studies.  Many interesting studies are supported by CRF, covering a broad range of family issues. The selected faculty scholars are interdisciplinary, from a broad range of academic disciplines across UMass. Laws is excited to engage with family research from multiple disciplinary perspectives in her work with CRF.

The other part of her position will be teaching advanced statistics courses such as Hierarchical Linear Modeling and Structural Equation to graduate students, including graduate students from PBS as well as from other departments such as Education and Sociology. By teaching members of different academic disciplines, she will see alternate perspectives and find new ways to model data. Also, as a member of the Clinical Program, she will be supporting students and joining various committees.

Outside of work, Laws draws from her background in music. She enjoys Sacred Harp singing, an early American folk music style using shape-notes for notation. This style is practiced in local choruses within the Pioneer Valley and across the country.


Jessica Matthews, Postdoctoral Research Scholar in the Rudd Adoption Research Program

The Rudd Adoption Research Program is excited to welcome Dr. Jessica Matthews as our Postdoctoral Research Scholar! Jessica recently completed her Ph.D. in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts where she worked with Dr. Ellen Pinderhughes. Her dissertation focused on maltreatment in adoptive homes and the legal relinquishment/removal and subsequent readoption of previously adopted children. Her general research interests concern both domestically and internationally adopted children, child foster care, ethnic-racial socialization, identity development and adoptee advocacy. We look forward to having Jessica on our team!


PBS welcomes new Graduate Students!

From left:

Shannon Gair, Clinical Psychology, Advisor: Lisa Harvey

Heather Muir, Clinical Psychology, Advisor: Michael Constantino

Jasmine Dixon, Clinical Psychology, Advisor: Becky Ready

Adrian Rivera-Rodriquez, Social Psychology, Advisor: Nilanjana Dasgupta

Sherry Woods, Clinical Psychology, Advisor: Katherine Dixon-Gordon

Sandarsh Pandey, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, Advisor: Kyle Cave

Sanna Lokhandwala, Developmental Science, Advisor: Rebecca Spencer

Eli Zaleznik, Developmental Science, Advisor: Joonkoo Park

Jihyun Hwang, Developmental Science, Advisor: Joonkoo Park

Se Min Suh, Social Psychology, Advisor: Brian Lickel

Michaela Goodenough, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, Advisor: Caren Rotello

Jon Burnsky, Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience, Advisor: Adrian Staub