Fall 2018 Newsletter | New Faces

Tara Mandalaywala Read more

Allecia Reid Read more

Amanda Hamel Read more

Danielle Samuels Read more

Interview with New Assistant Professor Tara Mandalaywala

What are some of the steps you took in life or influences that brought you to your current area of research?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist since I was a little kid. My parents had an exhibitor booth at the annual Society for Neuroscience conference and they would take me and my younger brother with them, for our family “vacation”. While there, I learned that scientists and professors weren’t these scary, intimidating individuals; they were silly, kind, interesting people who let me ask them a million questions and encouraged my curiosity. I knew I wanted to be one of them when I grew up. Although I knew what I wanted to be, I took a somewhat windy path to end up studying the particular research questions I investigate now. In college, I first worked in a genetics lab where I extracted DNA from ring-tailed lemur blood and saliva, in order to characterize part of their genome. Although I liked working in the wet lab, my favorite days were those when we would go collect cheek swabs from the lemurs. This experience spurred on my interest in animal behavior and led to me to major in Biological Anthropology in college, to study primate cognition in lemurs as my undergrad honors thesis, and to decide to study primate behavior and cognition in graduate school.

In grad school, I spent 6 years bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Puerto Rico, where I studied a group of rhesus macaques on the island of Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico, from the day they were born until they were 2 years old. My goal was to investigate the socio-cognitive and physiological mechanisms underlying their early development and socialization. During this time, I collected basically every bodily fluid from them you could imagine (urine, feces, saliva, blood, CSF fluid, glamorous, right?), and spent endless hours chasing baby monkeys around the island trying to get them to look at things for me and recording everything that they did.

Throughout my dissertation, I became particularly fascinated by questions of adaptation: How do individuals become adapted to their environment, and how might behaviors or aspects of cognition that seem maladaptive actually allow that individual to be tailored to their particular environment? This is a question that united a lot of my previous work and that gave me the opportunity to work with human participants. A lot of my time as a postdoc was spent learning how to study and work with human children (not the same as monkey babies) and human parents (definitely not the same as monkey parents!). It also gave me the opportunity to study social groups and questions that impact people and their lived experiences. I’ve learned so much examining questions of gender, racial, and economic inequality, and being able to share these research findings with participants and see how it resonates with them has been incredibly rewarding.

In the Cognition Across Development lab at UMass, I’m looking forward to uniting these different research areas and interests and to continue studying questions of adaptation and social cognition across species and across development.

What are some short-term goals for your research? For example, some goals you may try to tackle in one year?

One of the reasons that I’m most excited to come to UMass is because the Pioneer Valley area is so different from New York City, where I’m moving from. Given my interests in how cognitive adaptation, and how the local context shapes children’s perceptions and beliefs about the world and about themselves, this cultural variation opens up an exciting set of research opportunities. I’m hoping to take some of the studies that I worked on in NYC looking at the development of children’s beliefs about race and social status, and see how children’s beliefs are similarly or differently affected by their local context in western Massachusetts. I’m also planning to dig into the role of the environment a bit more deeply, to better understand how cross-group exposure vs. interaction vs. friendships affect socio-cognitive development.

I’m also excited to learn more about the communities and neighborhoods in the Pioneer Valley, and to let this shape the research questions that I ask. For example, I recently learned that Holyoke has one of the largest per capita populations of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. I haven’t previously worked on questions that are directly relevant to or informed by Latinx individuals, but I am thrilled for the opportunity to speak with those in the Holyoke community to learn more about what issues matter to them, and to think about how I might be able to work with them to answer questions they care about.

What are some big questions in science you would like to see answered?

There’s this amazingly consistent cross-cultural finding on the importance of subjective social status on health and well-being. Briefly, once a baseline level of material resources is met, the best predictor of one’s health and mortality is not the objective amount of resources one has, but rather where one feels they are in the social hierarchy. I’m so curious to know more about precisely how people’s feelings about their social status come to exert this dramatic effect, and to study the development of children’s reasoning about social status.

Outside of my particular research domain, I think there are some fascinating questions about the evolution of brain size and cognitive capabilities across primate evolution. Although humans share so many traits with nonhuman animals, it’s hard to argue that humans are not qualitatively different. I think there are some great research programs doing thoughtful work chipping away at the role that things like culture and teaching play in explaining why humans possess such exceptional cognitive skills, and I look forward to seeing progress in this area in the next few decades.

What was appealing about coming to work at UMass?

My work is highly interdisciplinary in nature, and I was really seeking out a department and university where there are experts and potential collaborators across all these research areas. The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UMass meets and exceeds what I was looking for, and I can easily imagine working with faculty and students across all five research areas.

What excites you most about your next couple of years at UMass?

In all of my interactions with faculty, staff, and students at UMass, I’ve not only been impressed by the quality of conversation, but also with everyone’s friendliness and how welcoming they’ve been. I realize I might be biased coming from a city that is notoriously unfriendly, but I am genuinely excited to spend more time getting to know everyone and having the opportunity to building both collaborations and friendships with the UMass community in the coming years.


Interview with New Assistant Professor Allecia Reid

What are some of the steps you took in life or influences that brought you to your current area of research?

My primary line of research examines influences of social factors (e.g., social networks, mimicry, conformity) on alcohol use.   However, my research did not focus on alcohol use in graduate school— my master’s examined HIV risk behavior and my dissertation examined sun protection.  I soon realized, though, that alcohol use was the ideal domain for examining peer influences on health.  I therefore sought out postdoctoral training in Brown University’s Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies.  It provided the exposure and experiences I needed to be able to conduct informed research in this area. 

What are some short-term goals for your research? For example, some goals you may try to tackle in one year?

One question that is of interest to me is what happens when the immediate social environment indicates behavior that deviates from the broader community norm.  Do individuals choose to conform to the broader norm or the immediate environment? This question is important given our reliance on norms-correcting information as a behavior change technique. I look forward to running a study this year that will answer this question.

What are some big questions in science you would like to see answered?

Maintenance of behavior change following health promotion interventions is a relatively untackled problem.  We have a fairly good sense of how to nudge behavior in the short term.  However, we don’t yet know how to encourage maintenance of those changes over time.  I’d like to see more focus on intervention approaches that support maintenance.

What was appealing about coming to work at UMass?

I was particularly enticed by how collegial and supportive the department seems to be.  It was nice to see that people not only enjoy the work that they do but enjoy doing it in this environment with each other. 

What excites you most about your next couple of years at UMass?

I am looking forward to being able to test hypotheses that I’ve thought about for some time but was previously unable to execute due to various constraints.  I am also excited to work with graduate students and a postdoctoral researcher.  Brainstorming about and executing research can be really fun and I look forward to engaging in that process with trainees at various stages in their careers.


PBS Welcomes New Lecturer Amanda Hamel

amanda hamelAmanda Hamel is absolutely thrilled to be joining the PBS faculty next Fall to teach Behavioral Neuroscience and to coordinate the Junior Writing program. Amanda is a UMass alumna whose research focused on the effects of early experience on the development of different components of the stress response. She has previously taught Behavioral Neuroscience through Continuing and Professional Education and sections of Junior Writing at UMass and looks forward to continuing to work with the amazing students in PBS. 

PBS Welcomes New Lecturer Danielle Samuels

danielle samuelsDanielle Samuels received her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Riverside in 2018. Her research focuses on the development of internalizing problems across the transition from childhood to adolescence. Specifically, she is interested in the roles of puberty and sociocultural factors in explaining the emergence and changes in anxiety and depression during this transition period. Most recently, her work has focused on a specific facet of puberty—acne—and its association with depression and anxiety both in adolescence and beyond. In addition to her research, Danielle is intensely engaged in the craft of teaching, and has instructed courses in statistics, abnormal psychology, and introductory psychology, as well as designing interdisciplinary courses such as critical reasoning and psychology, and a course on math, science, and art. This fall, she is teaching Statistics in Psychology and Introductory Psychology.