PBS welcomes Assistant Professor Maria Galano

Maria GalanoWhat is your current area of research and how did you decide to focus on this area?

My research examines how violence exposure affects mental health and development in diverse populations. I use a cultural developmental psychopathology lens to understand how individual factors interact with the family and social contexts to shape pathways to risk and resilience following traumatic stress exposure. The primary aim of my research is to uncover the mechanisms by which early-life violence exposure affects long-term well-being. Going forward, I also want to partner with communities to use this research to develop more targeted, culturally-sensitive interventions for violence-exposed individuals.

I first became interested in this field after taking a Psychology class about trauma and its effects on mental health. In this course, I was surprised to learn that the majority of people who experience a traumatic event – like exposure to violence – actually don’t develop mental health problems, a phenomenon called resilience. As a result of this interest, I joined the Child Violence and Trauma lab at UMich, where I learned more about how violence affects children and families, as well as about intervention programs designed to reduce problems and foster resilience after exposure to violence. The experience I gained as an undergraduate RA in this lab solidified my interest in pursuing a career in Clinical Psychology.

What was a recent project you worked on as a President's Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Maryland?

While at the University of Maryland I learned a new statistical technique called ‘Item Response Theory,’ or IRT. This technique allows you to compare different measures of the same construct and can tell you how much information that each measure gives about that construct, relative to one another. This might help answer questions such as, “What are the most useful measures of X?” or, “What aspects of X construct are not being captured by currently available measures?” This was an exciting technique for me to learn because the quality of your science hinges on having good measures of whatever phenomenon you study.

I used IRT to compare how different measures of childhood irritability (a risk factor for many childhood mental health problems) perform at different developmental stages. The goal of this project was to better understand how well irritability measures work at different age ranges as well as to learn what information currently available measures are missing. This information will hopefully aid in the development of new measures for childhood irritability. In the future, I envision using this technique to answer similar questions about measures of other risk factors for mental health disorders.

What are some short-term goals for your upcoming research at UMass?

One of the main goals for my upcoming research is to address questions that are not only relevant to the field that I study but are relevant to the community where I live. I plan do this by developing partnerships with community organizations and community members to use my expertise to address problems that are related to trauma and mental health and are especially widespread in this geographic area, such as opioid epidemic. In my research, I am also invested in better understanding why there are differences in violence exposure and violence-related problems such that racial and ethnic minority individuals are disproportionately affected by these issues. I plan to do this by examining how experiences such as racism, discrimination, and immigration/acculturation affect the development of mental health problems in violence-exposed children and families.

What is a big question in science you would like to see answered?

The big question I would like answered is—why do people act violently toward one another within the family context? Knowing the answer to this question is essential to the development of interventions that could prevent violence of happening in the first place, and in doing so, prevent the development of the violence-related mental health problems that I study.

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

I am really excited to conduct research in a place that is as diverse as Western Mass. There are people of varying ethno-racial backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses, as well as those who live in urban and rural areas. Because of this, I know that findings from my research will apply to a broad range of people, including those who have been historically underrepresented in psychological research. I am also excited to work alongside so many talented researchers who are also interested in conducting research that can help improve the lives of children and their families, as well as those who are affected by trauma and violence.