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.