Fall 2018 Newsletter | Awards and Honors

Successful Doctoral Dissertation Defenses:

Daniel Chapman, dissertation: “Three Investigations into the Dynamics and Implications of Identify Protective Cognition for Public Responses to Environmental Problems.” 

Elina Kaplan, dissertation: “Hearing and seeing a speaker: How perceptual and cognitive factors modulate the dynamics of audiovisual speech perception.”

Katherine Newkirk, dissertation: “Maternal Postpartum Depression and Father Involvement Across the Transition to Parenthood.” 

Shereen El Mallah, dissertation: “Conceptualization and Measurement of Adolescent Prosocial Behavior: A Two-Study Mixed Methods Investigation”. Shereen examined Latino/Latina and White young adolescents’ concepts of prosocial behavior, and how ethnic group and individual differences in prosociality were linked with differences in well-being in the transition to adolescence. Shereen is now a post-doctoral fellow, funded by a US Institute of Education Sciences training grant, at the University of Virginia. 

Charisse Pickron, dissertation: “Two of the same? Infants' conceptual representation of faces based upon gender, race, and kind information”. Charisse examined infants' representations of individual faces that varied by humanness, gender and race. Charisse is now a post-doctoral fellow, funded by the President's Postdoctoral Fellowship within the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. She is working with Dr. Jed Elison and will be continuing her research on perceptual and conceptual processing of social groups during infancy. She will also be learning both behavioral, eye-tracking, and electrophysiological measures. 

Student Awards:

Patrick Sadil, a fourth-year student in the Cognitive Psychology Program working with Dr. Rosie Cowell, was awarded the third annual Keith Rayner Memorial Graduate Student Research Award. Data from Patrick’s project, Visual Recollection: filling in the blanks for non-declarative information, will test key assumptions underlying theories that attempt to explain how people recognize something that they have encountered before—such as a person, an object, or a context. These results will offer insight into the relationship between the kinds of processes that support recognition and the kinds of information used during those processes. 

David Reinhard awarded new grants for the study of international conflict de-escalation. Read more

Lee Science Impact Program supports summer research for PBS Students. Read more

Alice Coyne, a 5th year student in the Psychotherapy Research Lab, was awarded the 2018 Society for the Advancement of Psychotherapy (Division 29 of the American Psychological Association) Student Excellence in Teaching/Mentorship Award. Alice received this award at the APA Convention in San Francisco in August.

Sungha Kang, graduate student in clinical psychology, received a student poster award for innovative research from APA Division 53 (Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology) for her project "Racial Differences in Parent and Teacher Perceptions of ADHD".

Faculty Awards:

Rebecca Spencer examines the role of sleep in memory processing. Read more

Jennifer M. McDermott appointed Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. Read more

Katherine Dixon-Gordon selected for the Judy Hall Early Career Psychologist Award. Read more

Rebecca Spencer receives concurrent NIH, NSF grants for child sleep studies Read more


Alexandra Jesse and Jennifer M. McDermott have received tenure.

Lori Astheimer has been promoted to Senior Lecturer. 

Lee Science Impact Program Supports Summer Research for PBS Students

The William Lee Science Impact Program (Lee SIP) is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) within the College of Natural Sciences designed to expand and broaden participation in undergraduate research. The program provides students the opportunity to work on fun, novel, and interesting scientific questions by matching them with faculty members with similar research interests.

Lee SIP Scholars are mentored directly by research faculty, work within a research team, and participate in professional development workshops—activities that will prepare them for a wide range of science-based careers. The goal of the program is to create opportunities for undergraduate students to engage directly in the cutting-edge research occurring on campus, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups in science disciplines, such as first-generation college students.

The inaugural summer of the Lee SIP culminated in the REU Poster Symposium August 3, where scholars presented their work to the UMass community. Twenty-seven students participated from a range of majors. The students from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences included:

Emma Cyr (pictured) of the Affect and Social Cognition Lab directed by Linda Isbell. Her project is titled, “Vulnerable Patients in the Emergency Department: A Qualitative Investigation of Health Care Provider Challenges.”

Angela Mirisola of the Self-Regulation, Emotions, & Early Development (SEED) Lab directed by Adam Grabell. Her project is titled, "PMS, parenting, and the effect on childhood irritability and behavior problems".

Aazam Najeebi of the Cognition & Action Lab directed by Rebecca Spencer. His project is titled, “Neural Basis of Sleep-Dependent Changes in Learning”.

Read more about the William Lee Science Impact Program

David Reinhard Awarded New Grants for the Study of International Conflict De-escalation

David Reinhard, a postdoctoral research associate in the Psychology of Peace and Violence Program working with faculty member Bernhard Leidner, has received new grants from the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI), the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence (APA Division 48), and the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). His research project entitled “De-escalating Conflict in International Rivalries” aims to understand how rivalries between nations can lead to conflict escalation, and whether this understanding can be leveraged for conflict reduction and prevention.

Reinhard was also recently awarded a grant from the University of Massachusetts Amherst Office of Equity and Inclusion. He will lead a new research project, entitled “Bridging the Great Divide,” as part of the Campus Climate Improvement grant program. The project aims to foster effective communication strategies "across the political aisle" on campus.

Rebecca Spencer Examines the Role of Sleep in Memory Processing

Rebecca SpencerRebecca Spencer, has received a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, which renews an earlier grant from NIH’s National Institutes of Aging to support work on sleep and memory in older adults.

Spencer and colleagues will use the MRI in the Human Magnetic Resonance Center at the Institute of Applied Life Sciences to look at how memories are encoded in the brain before sleep and how they are changed by sleep compared to wakefulness in older adults compared to younger adults.

As she explains, “In the first five years of this work, we had several significant findings, and among them we found that sleep’s role in memory processing was particularly reduced by aging for tasks that required motor learning, for example, learning a sequence of finger movements. The good news is that when we looked at more ‘traditional’ learning tasks, things like learning a list of words, we found that sleep is still beneficial for older adults.”

In the next five years of the award, she adds, “we will continue to try to understand this. If we can understand why sleep’s role is preserved for declarative memory, then we can perhaps design interventions to improve sleep function for procedural memories.”

Spencer says her group predicts that there are different brain regions engaged in older adults when learning something, compared to young adults. By not engaging the critical brain area, older adults don’t tap into the ability for sleep to work on memories. “We predict that you MUST use the hippocampus on a task in order for that task to benefit from sleep,” she says.  

Another possibility the sleep researchers are considering is that older adults perhaps use the same brain areas, but to a lesser extent. “Older people just don’t learn things quite as deeply before sleep compared to young adults,” she suggests. “So we are going to do a study in which we over-train the older adults prior to sleep to see if that brings them up to the place the young adults are.”

In addition to the human MRI center at IALS, Spencer and colleagues will use high-density polysomnography during sleep in this series of experiments.

A further aspect of the research will be to explore the observation that changes in sleep precede the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, Spencer says. “Given that sleep benefits memory in healthy young adults, it has been proposed that changes in sleep may contribute to cognitive impairments in Alzheimer’s disease, particularly early in the disease. Yet what remains unknown, and is a long-term goal of our research, is whether sleep-dependent memory benefits persist even when changes in sleep and memory-encoding deficits that accompany healthy aging are observed.”

Understanding healthy brain aging and factors underlying cognitive resilience (such as sleep and hippocampal function) is essential to inform interventions and preventions for Alzheimer’s disease and other age-related diseases with impaired sleep, Spencer says.

Jennifer M. McDermott Appointed Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies

Jennifer McDermottJennifer M. McDermott has been appointed the first College of Natural Sciences (CNS) Director of Diversity and Inclusion for Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. In this new role, McDermott work with Graduate Students and Postdoctoral Scholars and collaborate with the Assistant Dean for Inclusion and Engagement in the Graduate School to promote the CNS Vision for Diversity and Inclusion.

McDermott's area of focus is developmental science and her research explores factors that influence self-regulation in children and young adults. Her experiences at UMass Amherst have positively impacted the University and she begins this position with an extensive background in promoting graduate student growth and development.  

CNS strives to emphasize the value of diversity and foster an inclusive learning and work environment for all. In this newly created position, Jennifer will work closely with the Director of Faculty Equity and Inclusion, Buju Dasgupta, and the Director of Student Success and Diversity, Tracie Gibson, to support the achievement of the college's aspirations.

“I’m thrilled to be a part of this initiative and look forward to working with all members of CNS to create the best environment possible for the next generation of scientists to reach their full potential”.  —Jennifer M. McDermott


Katherine Dixon-Gordon Selected for the Judy Hall Early Career Psychologist Award

katie dixon-gordonThe National Register of Health Service Psychologists has presented the 2018 Judy E. Hall Early Career Psychologist Award to Katherine Dixon-Gordon. The award recognizes excellence in a National Register credentialed psychologist with fewer than ten years of postdoctoral experience, and the associated $2,500 stipend supports a project that advances the mission, vision, and values of the National Register.

Dixon-Gordon was selected for the Hall award based on both her exceptional achievements as an Early Career Psychologist and her plan to use the $2,500 award stipend to better understand the gap between patients who need care and those who receive it by focusing on care provision of patients with psychological and substance use disorders in emergency departments. Her project will recruit emergency room providers and, using an experimental paradigm, examine the effect of patient co-occurring psychological disorders (present or absent) on the quality of care (e.g., referrals provided) using hypothetical vignettes. Potential barriers to receiving care and referrals will also be examined, including access to institutional resources (such as integrated psychologists), past training in intervention and efficacious treatments for psychological disorders, and negative attitudes.

Upon receiving the award, Dixon-Gordon said, “It is a great honor to receive the 2018 Judy E. Hall Early Career Psychologist Award. I appreciate the ways in which the National Register secures and promotes the profession of health service psychology. Our field has a great deal of knowledge and technology to enhance the health and well-being of individuals and communities. Yet, there remains a gap between those individuals who need psychological care and those who receive it. Given that emergency department patients often face obstacles to accessing the psychological care that they need, I am especially grateful to have the support of this award to explore how substance use and psychological diagnoses affect care provision in emergency department settings. The disproportionate reliance on emergency medicine among disadvantaged communities makes this work particularly important, and I am appreciative of the National Register for their support.”

Dixon-Gordon is a licensed clinical psychologist and Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology. Her research primarily focuses on the role of emotional processes in the development and maintenance of psychopathology, with an emphasis on borderline personality disorder. In her research, she employs laboratory-based methods to analyze the influence of emotional processes on other domains, such as interpersonal functioning. Her work has been published in several publications including Behavior Therapy and the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The National Register of Health Service Psychologists is the largest credentialing organization for psychologists. Established in 1974, the independent nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving healthcare by identifying psychologists who meet specific credentialing standards to consumers, healthcare organizations, and regulatory bodies. 

Rothwell, Catherine. (2018, June). Katherine L. Dixon-Gordon, PhD, Named 2018 Judy E. Hall Early Career Psychologist Award Winner.  https://www.nationalregister.org/press-releases/katherine-l-dixon-gordon-phd-named-2018-judy-e-hall-early-career-psychologist-award-winner/

Rebecca Spencer Receives Concurrent NIH, NSF Grants for Child Sleep Studies

Rebecca Spencer recently received a two-year, $423,208 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, with co-investigator Tracy Riggins at the University of Maryland, to study the role of sleep and brain maturation on memory in early childhood development, specifically when children transition out of naps.

At the same time, they also received a three-year, $599,075 grant from the National Science Foundation for a complementary longitudinal investigation where she and Riggins will continue to follow the children as they transition out of naps. Collectively the investigations are expected to “deepen understanding of how sleep benefits learning and memory in healthy children, providing benefit to healthy child care, pre-school education and children with developmental and mental disorders.”

The work is part of Spencer’s years-long investigations into the role of sleep in children. In adults, sleep promotes memory consolidation, the processing of memories that strengthens them and makes them less vulnerable to interference. It’s known that sleep is important for brain plasticity in young adults, the researchers point out, but less is known about the function of sleep in children. Naps benefit learning and memory in young children, Spencer notes. However, children transition out of naps during preschool years and whether naps should be encouraged in preschools or eliminated to provide more time for early learning is not clear.

“These grants will allow us to develop models to test the idea that changes in the brain will lead to changes in sleep patterns and that improved sleep will improve memory,” she says.

Spencer and Riggins point out, “Although we have provided behavioral demonstration of sleep-dependent consolidation in young children, the neural mechanisms supporting this process have yet to be examined.” This gap is significant because both memory and the hippocampal-cortical network supporting it are undergoing significant developmental change during this period, they add.

Using magnetic resonance imaging at Maryland, the researchers will study neural mechanisms supporting sleep-dependent memory consolidation in children. The processes are thought to reflect hippocampal-neocortical transfer of memories and to be related to physiological events in non-REM sleep.

Spencer says, “Our main idea is that as the hippocampus is maturing in early childhood, it enhances memory so more information is retained without interference, which then reduces the need for frequent consolidation. We think this is what is happening when a child transitions from napping to no longer needing a nap.”

The researchers hope that by identifying the mechanisms of how sleep benefits learning and memory in young children, sleep can provide another tool for enhancing education, particularly for children with developmental disorders and psychopathologies. Further, as they point out, “there are no formal recommendations regarding naps for this age group.” This research will lay the groundwork for developing recommendations for typically developing children and nap-based interventions for others such as at-risk and learning delayed children.

UMass Amherst News & Media Relations. (2018, June 27). Spencer Receives NIH, NSF Grants for Child Sleep Studies. http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/article/spencer-receives-nih-nsf-grants-child