Portrait photo of Anne Kalomiris

Clinical psychology grad student first at Miami to receive NIH Kirschstein fellowship

A father holds his daughter's hand as they walk.
Anne Kalomiris, a graduate student and Miami Univeristy’s first Kirschstein-NRSA recipient, conducts research on the relationships between parenting behaviors and risk for children to develop anxiety.

Anne Kalomiris, a docotoral student in clinical psychology, is the first Miami University student to receive a Ruth L. Kirschstein Individual National Research Service Award (NRSA) from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

According to NIH, the purpose of this prestigious fellowship is to “enable promising pre-doctoral students with potential to develop into productive, independent research scientists [and] to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research.”

The dissertation research project Kalomiris proposed as part of her application examines whether young children’s temperaments and their mothers’ parenting styles affect their risk for developing anxiety. As part of this study, Kalomiris will analyze saliva samples and electroencephalogram (EEG) data from children about to enter kindergarten to search for neurological markers of anxiety risk.

Spit camp

The funding Kalomiris receives from the NIH will allow her to attend “spit camp” and receive other training. At spit camp, she will learn how to measure how much of the stress hormone cortisol is in the saliva samples she collects. She will also attend training focused on statistical analysis, and she’ll visit a mentor at Penn State who will help her better understand EEG methodology and teach her about functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Because Miami doesn’t have any fMRI equipment, Kalomiris would not have an opportunity to learn about this technique for measuring and mapping brain activity without access to outside training. “This fellowship is broadening what’s available to me and opening doors for what I can pursue in my future career,” she says.

In addition, because of the stipend she will receive from NIH, Kalomiris will not need to teach or do clinical work to support herself. “It protects my time,” she says. “I’m excited to be able to just focus on my research and on my training.”

Developing patterns

Kalomiris’s study piggybacks on a longitudinal study conducted by associate professor of psychology Elizabeth Kiel, who is also Kalomiris’s research advisor. In her study, which began in 2011, Kiel brings children and their parents into the lab at annual intervals, beginning when the children are a year old.

This summer, Kalomiris will collect data from a cohort of children from Kiel’s study who will be entering kindergarten in the fall. This phase of the study will focus on examining how the children’s brains respond to making simple mistakes because this is relevant for anxiety risk. She will use data from when those same children were toddlers to understand how the interaction between the children’s temperament and the parenting they received in toddlerhood influences the way their brains function just before kindergarten.

Kalomiris expects to find that specific parenting behaviors may contribute to or protect against the development of neurological-markers of anxiety in children, particularly for those children who tended to react intensely to new things in toddlerhood. She says that identifying links between early parenting, temperament, and anxiety risk could help clinical psychologists customize treatment for their patients.

“If we find that only kids with certain temperaments are really susceptible to certain parenting behaviors,” Kalomiris says, “then we can target parental behavior interventions to the families that are going to be most benefitted.”

But Kalomiris’s fellowship is about more than laying the groundwork for a single intervention. Unlike with most NIH grants, the Kirschstein-NRSA supports an individual, rather than a project. NIH has funded Kalomiris, not because they think she has one good idea, but because they think she has the potential for many more. It’s a huge vote of confidence for any young researcher, but Kalomiris has taken it in stride and is already thinking about giving back.

“I’m still surprised and honored I was even given the opportunity,” she says. “I’m hoping someday I will get to mentor graduate or undergraduate students myself, and can help them get excited about research.” That’s just one more way NIH will see a return on its investment in Anne Kalomiris.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photo of Anne Kalomiris courtesy of Anne Kalomiris. Photo dad and daughter by Spirit-Fire via Flicker, used under Creative Commons license.

Undergraduate research assistants Grace Hawkins and Andrew Higgins practice using some of the physiological assessment equipment they will use during the interoception study.

Graduate student investigates new predictor of suicidal behavior

Lauren Forrest and Andrew Higgins look at a spreadsheet on a laptop computer.
Graduate student Lauren Forrest is conducting a study to see if interoception — the ability to perceive physiological sensation — can predict who is at risk for suicide. Here, she discusses data collection with undergraduate research associate Andrew Higgins.

Veterans Administration (VA) statistics suggest that veterans are disproportionately affected by suicide. While only one out of every ten Americans has served in the military, veterans accounted for nearly one out of every five suicides in 2014. Despite stepped-up efforts by the VA to help prevent such tragic outcomes a major hurdle remains: it can be nearly impossible to predict who is at risk of suicide.

The problem is not a lack of research. “A lot of people have been trying to find out for a long time why these behaviors occur,” says Lauren Forrest, a graduate student in Miami University’s Department of Psychology. Even so, recent analyses of data from 50 years’ worth of studies show that the ability of mental health professionals to predict suicidal behavior is still no better than chance.

“We need to study novel risk factors, to look at new things that might be related to people injuring themselves,” says Forrest.

She suggests interoception as one potential candidate. Interoception is the ability to perceive physiological sensation – including hunger, itch, pain, and emotions – inside the body. Forrest’s hypothesis is that people who have low interoception, who are relatively “tuned out” to pain or to sensations associated with fear, might be at greater risk for harming themselves.

“It’s kind of like when someone’s been to the dentist and had a shot of Novocaine,” says Forrest. “Their tongue goes numb, and it would be really easy for them to bite their tongue and cause significant damage, because they can’t feel it.”

Forrest’s work recently caught the attention of the Military Suicide Research Consortium, which has given her a $2,000 grant to complete an interoception study, under the supervision of assistant professor April Smith.

To establish a baseline of interoception, Forrest will compare subjects’ self-reported responses to physical and emotional stimuli with measurements of their physiological responses to those stimuli. Both people with a history of self-injurious behavior and people without such a history will be included in the study, so that their responses can be compared.

“We want to understand how this misperception is happening” in people with low interoceptive ability, says Forrest. “Is it more of a psychological thing or is it more of a physiological thing? Do their bodies simply not produce these sensations like they should?”

To help answer those questions, Forrest and two undergraduate research assistants will continue to follow participants with a history of self-injury for six months after collection of the baseline data. They will ask the participants to report weekly on the number of times they injured themselves, thought about suicide, and/or attempted suicide. Forrest and her team will then look for correlations between those reports and the self-reporting and physiological data collected during the baseline phase.

Given the incidence of suicide among veterans, it’s easy to see why the Military Suicide Research Consortium is interested this kind of research. But service members and veterans will not be the only ones to benefit.

“Suicide and non-suicidal self-injury are really huge public health problems with very significant consequences,” says Forrest.

If she’s able to find a link between reduced interoception and self-injurious behavior, Forrest’s work may lay the groundwork for further research that eventually leads to clinical interventions. For instance, it may one day be possible for healthcare professionals to administer questionnaires and/or physiological assessments that help predict which patients are at risk of self-injury and refer them for treatment before it’s too late.

That’s an outcome everyone can live with.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director of Research Communications, Office for the Advancement of Research and Scholarship, Miami University.

Photos courtesy of Lauren Forrest.

Lauren Fussner stands beside a poster describing her research on adolescent depression, sensitivity to social feedback, and social functioning.

Project takes flight on HawksNest

Lauren Fussner and another person sit at a table reviewing paper documents and consulting a laptop.
Lauren Fussner, left, is lead investigator of the first project successfully funded through HawksNest, a new crowdfunding platform at Miami University.

Lauren Fussner, a graduate student in clinical psychology at Miami University, is lead investigator on the first project successfully funded through Miami’s new crowdfunding site, HawksNest.

Fussner says she was excited about using HawksNest to raise funds for her project because she had previously had difficulty obtaining funds from national funding sources to support her project. HawksNest allowed her reach people who had a personal interest in her project, which seeks to identify shared or common risk factors contributing to depression and eating disorders in adolescent females.

“Instead of competing broadly, on a larger scale, I was able to network through my personal contacts, as well as reach out to individuals who may have a personal interest in helping teens with depression and eating disorders,” Fussner says.

Crowdfunding allows researchers who, like Fussner, are conducting meaningful research and have a compelling story to tell, to raise funds by leveraging personal networks. This requires both initial generation of excitement about the project, as well as continuous promotion throughout the campaign (learn more here).

Fussner posted information about her project on her personal Facebook account and encouraged others in her lab to do the same. She also used contacts from her Notre Dame undergraduate Facebook alumni group and clinical psychology alumni group to help spread the word about her project.

Fussner further attributes her fundraising success to setting a realistic, attainable goal.

“With a modest goal of just over $500, we were able to raise our funds quickly. After the first donation was made, others quickly followed,” she says.

HawksNest was created to help Miami University students, faculty, and staff engage the Miami community to help fund student-centered projects.

Written by Tricia Callahan, Director for Proposal Development, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Images courtesy of Lauren Fussner.

Micro-focusing an Argon-ion laser onto a graphene sample

Interdisciplinary team works to engineer success

A professor works with a group of students in a physics classroom. The students are writing on a whiteboard and using a calculator.
If an intervention being developed by an interdisciplinary team at Miami University proves effective, more engineering students may pass early physics courses, like this one taught by Visiting Assistant Professor Dilupama Divaratne.

According to a 2013 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly half of students who begin pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM fields – drop out of that pipeline before earning a degree.

Among several factors the NCES cites is “performing poorly in STEM classes relative to non-STEM classes.” As a physics instructor at Miami University, Jennifer Blue has seen this firsthand.

Blue reports that while a majority of introductory engineering students at Miami pass their first-year physics classes, about 20% earn a “D,” “F,” or “W.”

“It makes us so sad when people fail our classes,” the associate professor says.

In part, that sorrow stems from the knowledge that an early negative experience is often enough to cause students to give up on the dream of becoming an engineer. That’s not what Blue wants.

It’s not what Brian Kirkmeyer wants either. As Assistant Dean for Student Success in Miami’s College of Engineering and Computing, it’s his job to help keep engineering students’ dreams alive.

“It serves no purpose for students’ dreams to be squashed,” he says. “That doesn’t get us more engineers and computer scientists. We want physics to be a course that sets students up for a successful STEM-based academic – and, ultimately, post-academic – career.”

Kirkmeyer’s sentiment is consistent with the goals of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Engineering Education program.

“The NSF knows that there’s a crisis in America with engineering, that we don’t have enough engineers, and that there are all sorts of places in the pathway to engineering where there are problems,” says Amy Summerville, who is the lead investigator on a $368,000 grant from the program.

In collaboration with Blue and Kirkmeyer, Summerville, an associate professor in Miami’s Department of Psychology, is working to develop an intervention to improve engineering students’ success in physics courses.

Summerville’s area of expertise is counterfactual thinking, or thinking about how things might have been, as opposed to how things actually are. According to Summerville, counterfactual thinking is important not only because it helps us identify the causes of negative events, but also because it helps us set intentions for the future.

For instance, she says, someone who’s been involved in a car accident might think, “If only I hadn’t been texting, I wouldn’t have had the accident.” That thought can lead that person to decide to leave their phone in their bag the next time they get behind the wheel.

Summerville thinks that helping engineering students who experience an early setback in a physics class – say receiving a “D” or “F” on the first exam – think about what they might have done differently before that exam could improve their future performance.

“We know,” says physics instructor Blue, “that students aren’t all doing the things that we desperately wish they would do, like completing their homework, coming to class, asking for help, going to office hours.”

The solution Summerville imagines is a worksheet that physics instructors would give to students when they hand back the first exam. The worksheet would ask students a series of questions about how they prepared for the exam and encourage them to reflect on their performance. Then, critically, the worksheet would ask students to generate ideas about what they could do differently to prepare for the next exam.

If Summerville’s intervention proves effective, it would have a significant advantage over many other interventions that have been tried in the past.

“Lots of engineering programs have tried really elaborate, really expensive ways of addressing this – changing pedagogy, creating cohorts, creating all sorts of new administrative systems,” says Summerville. “And what this might allow us to do is help students better take advantage of all the resources that are already there, with almost no additional investment.”

That prospect has intrigued other engineering educators, including members of the project’s advisory board, who work at some of the region’s biggest and most prestigious engineering schools. Still in the first year of their three-year project, the team already has invitations to give talks or lead workshops at The Ohio State University, Purdue University, and Indiana University. Even institutions farther away, like the Georgia Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, and Texas A&M University, have expressed interest.

While she’s excited about the interest her team’s approach has generated, Summerville cautions that their worksheet isn’t magic, and that it’s important for educators to understand the characteristics of their particular students and to take into account the specific circumstances they face.

“We’re figuring out what works at Miami,” she says. “And there may be important differences between us and other universities.”

One difference, Blue notes, is that Miami students tend to be better prepared than many students at other institutions.

“When I talk to colleagues at other universities, they say, ‘Well, if only our students could do Algebra I material, they might survive,’” Blue says. “Our students can do the math. They’re totally qualified to be there. But they didn’t have to do all this stuff to get ‘A’s in high school, most of them, so they don’t always realize what it’s going to take.”

By delivering talks and leading workshops Summerville hopes to help engineering educators understand the science behind the intervention, so that they can use it to guide students to take ownership of the behaviors that influence their individual academic success. There’s a huge difference for nearly everyone, she says, between being told what to do and making your own decisions.

Kirkmeyer agrees that’s key. “Self-efficacy’s a powerful thing,” he says.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Physics classroom photo by Scott Kissell, Miami University Photo Services. Argon-ion laser photo by University of Exeter via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.


A young girl wearing a pink short-sleeved top with ruffles on the sleeves and flowers on the right shoulder appears upside down in the frame. Her medium-length, dark hair swings out from her head, toward the bottom of the frame.

Psychology professor studies perceptions of humanity

A group of five people sit in chairs with attached desks arranged in a semi-circle. Their focus is on a laptop on one of the desks in the center of the group. On the far left is a middle-aged man wearing a white button-down under a dark pullover. He is gesturing and there is a paper on his desk. To his left is a young woman with long, curly hair. She is looking at the laptop. To her left is a young man wearing glasses and a tee shirt. He is stroking his chin and looking at the middle-aged man. To the left of the young man with the glasses is another young man gesturing at his chest and smiling. He, too, is looking at the middle-aged man. At the far right of the frame, another young man with dark hair and an army-green t-shirt leans forward on his right elbow to see the laptop.
Dr. Kurt Hugenberg (far left), professor of psychology, discusses research findings with undergraduate students on his team. Shown from left to right are: Evans Smalley, Jason Weiss, Chris Culp, and Neema Mohammadi.

What makes a face seem human? The answer, just like the question, is simultaneously facile and complex, according to Miami University psychology professor Kurt Hugenberg.

The simplest definition of what makes a face human, Hugenberg says, is an eyes-over-nose-over-mouth arrangement. This regular configuration helps us identify individual people more easily.

“If all houses were as similar as human faces,” Hugenberg says, “we’d never be able to tell our house apart from someone else’s. But because we are finely tuned to very small differences within faces, we can distinguish between them. Two people appear quite different, even though, objectively, they’re quite similar to one another.”

Hugenberg’s research team – including five graduate students and eleven undergraduate students – works to understand how people perceive humanity in others’ faces by asking participants to rate faces on certain characteristics.

The researchers show participants photographs of various faces and ask questions like, “How empathetic is this person?” and “How able is this person to solve complex logical problems?”

“These are characteristics only humans have, so the answers to those questions tell us a lot about the perceived humanity of a face,” Hugenberg says.

What Hugenberg and his team have found is that if the eyes-over-nose-over-mouth arrangement is altered in even the most basic way – by turning a face upside down, for instance – participants answer those questions in ways that reflect reduced perceptions of humanity.

“Remarkably,” Hugenberg says, “when you turn anything else upside down, it doesn’t lose its essential characteristics. If you turn a chimpanzee face upside down, it still seems equivalently chimp-like to people, but when you turn that human face upside down it loses some of its experienced humanity.”

But humanity – like beauty – is more than skin deep, and so, supported by an award of more than $500,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Hugenberg and his colleagues, Indiana University’s Robert Rydell and Baruch College’s Steven Young, are now setting out to discover what goes on in the brains of people who view faces that violate the eyes-over-nose-over-mouth configuration.

They will use electroencephalography, or EEG, a technique in which electrodes are placed on the scalp to measure the electrical activity of neurons in the brain. “EEG measures temporal activation,” Hugenberg says, “so we’ll be able to see roughly where and exactly when different processes occur in the brain.”

Like with Hugenberg’s previous research this new work will involve a number of graduate and undergraduate students every step of the way, from planning and preparing experiments to collecting and then analyzing data, to preparing manuscripts. “This is work that never would, or even could, happen without them,” Hugenberg says.

Hugenberg gives special credit to his graduate students, Steven Almaraz, Jason Deska, Paige Lloyd, Kurt Schuepfer, and Taylor Tuscherer, who he says make the participation of his more junior students, Chris Culp, Saara Khalid, Zoebedeh Malakpa, Neema Mohammadi, Kelli Peterman, Bill Schauer, Monica Scicolone, Michaela Schukies, Evans Smalley, Kellen Smith, and Jason Weiss, possible. “Without the graduate students’ direct mentorship, we just couldn’t offer the undergraduates this type of hands-on involvement.”

Ultimately, Hugenberg hopes that his team’s work may help us better understand the processes by which certain individuals or groups of people become dehumanized by others.

“Instead of asking what makes a face seem human,” Hugenberg says, “we could ask what makes a person seem no longer like a person. When that happens, social cognition is essentially turned off, and it stops us from being motivated to think of people as people.”

Insofar as that mechanism for dehumanization helps explain slavery, genocide, and other atrocities, Hugenberg’s research may help lead us closer to a world in which all people are safe and valued.

Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Image of girl hanging from monkey bars by Andy Eick, via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.  Image of Hugenberg research group by Kurt Hugenberg, used with permission.

A variety of buildings is packed typically close in this view of the Bangkok skyline. Shorter 5- to 10-story buildings in the foreground include two orange brick buildings and three white buildings. Tall skyscrapers are visible in the background, including one with a crane on the roof.

Undergraduate completes research internship in Southeast Asia

A young woman with long, dark, curly hair and wearing a long black skirt, red and black patterned shirt and black sweater holds up a piece of paper from a spiral-bound notebook. The paper has a hand-drawn Miami beveled M logo and the words Love & Honor handwritten in cursive underneath. In the background are a green lawn, several buildings with tiled roofs, a round pavilion-type structure and a brick building. A tall gold spire extends from the roof of one of the tile-roofed buildings, near the center of the frame.
Miami University psychology and pre-medical studies major Cecelia Favede displays Miami love and honor in front of Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Favede’s trip to the Thai capital in summer 2014 to conduct research on the community health worker system was supported in part by a research award from OARS.

Community health workers (CHWs) help aid public health by serving on the frontline and having a thorough understanding of the health situation of the community they oversee. They strive to be the trusted link between health services and the community, in order to provide access to appropriate services and improve the quality of health care in their communities.

One way CHWs have been able to better aid the members of their designated communities is through analyses of data collected from areas of service. This is the type of contribution Miami University junior and psychology and pre-medical studies major Cecelia Favede was able to make to Cambodia’s CHW program during her research internship this past summer in Thailand. Working for the Oxford University Nuffield Department of Medicine at the Mahidol-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit (MORU), Favede did intensive reading and qualitative analyses of data. Drawing on the literature review, Favede wrote a paper on the roles and motivations of CHWs in their communities and in the eyes of the academic community. Her analysis, which was conducted with NVivo software and a statistical package, allowed her to create a demographic breakdown of the program and form a foundation for future correlational research.

Favede was awarded grants by a variety of Miami University resources, including OARS, in support of her 2014 research experience at the MORU in Bangkok, Thailand. Her mentor for the duration of her internship was Dr. Lisa White, head of Math and Economic Modeling (MAEMOD) at MORU.

During her internship, Favede co-authored a paper analyzing the ethics of the CHW program as a whole. She also collaborated with White and Oxford University’s dean of ethics on a study that analyzed the sustainability and continuity of a CHW project in Cambodia supported by an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation. In addition to this, Favede provided input on the ethics of mass drug administration in northern Thailand, assisted Thai PhD candidates with revisions for their theses (which were written in English), helped teach English at the university school, and spent time doing field work.

Favede has been interested in research since high school. As a junior her interest was piqued when she applied for a scholarship awarded on the basis of a scholarly pursuit. That project focused on the psychological and physiological effects of addiction to social media. “I have always been exceptionally interested in the diversity of application of psychological research,” Favede said.

Favede says her time in Thailand provided her with a better understanding of herself, as well as of the world that exists outside of the United States. She cites a favorite quote by Buck Ghosthorse that she feels describes her journey and growth in Bangkok: “Sometimes we have to travel to the edge of ourselves to find our center.”

Now that she’s home, Favede plans to complete the study she worked on during her internship, and anticipates doing more research in the future.

Written by Nicole Antonucci, Communications Intern, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.

Images by Cecelia Favede, used with permission.