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James W. Pennebaker, Chair The University of Texas at Austin, SEA 4.212, Austin, TX 78712 • (512) 475-7596

Three New Endowments Established for Psychology Graduate Students

Spring 2014 Newsletter

Posted: March 10, 2014

The Department of Psychology is proud to announce the establishment of three new endowments this year: The Dianne and Jerry Grammer Excellence Fund for Mental Health Research, The Hixon Fellowship in Statistics, and most recently, the Jennifer J. Malin Endowment.

The Grammer Fund will be a competitive fellowship open to all graduate students of the department who are researching mental health issues, such as depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, memory disorders and the psychology and promotion of artistic creativity. The Hixon Fellowship will help fund graduate students who want to take extra statistics courses as part of their degree, as well as encourage students who may not otherwise realize the value of adding such courses to their training.

The Jennifer J. Malin Endowment will also help graduate students in the Department of Psychology and was established in memory of Jenny Malin. Ms. Malin was a second-year graduate student in Social and Clinical Psychology who was tragically killed in a car accident on October 26, 2013. For more information on her life and work, please click here. A longer article devoted to her life and the endowment will be featured in the Fall 2014 newsletter.

 

The Dianne and Jerry Grammer Excellence Fund for Mental Health Research

In recognition of their dedication to UT and to the Department of Psychology, The University has chosen to honor Dianne and Jerry Grammer with an endowed graduate fellowship in their name. Two distinguished university alumni—Dr. Grammer’s fellow Cowboy alums—are chairing this endeavor: the Honorable Donald Evans, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce; and Houston businessman Corbin J. Robertson, Jr. The original goal to establish the fellowship has been met, and the chairs are now seeking $1,000,000 in funding for the Dianne and Jerry Grammer Excellence Fund for Mental Health Research.

Dr. Jerry Grammer has been active at UT since his undergraduate days pursuing a B.A. in Government and Sociology, and his enthusiastic involvement with the Texas Cowboys, the UT men’s honorary service organization (also known for rolling out “Smokey the Cannon” at Longhorn football games), where he served as Foreman in 1968. After earning advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, he continues his dedication to UT today by serving as Chair of the Department of Psychology’s Psychology Advisory Committee and through his continued work with the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association—including his term as their president from 2002–2004.

Now with a thriving private practice as a Clinical Psychologist in Austin, Grammer says that his undergraduate years at UT “were such a transformative experience,” that he just wants to give back. He explains, “...being a first generation college student from my enormous extended family (51 first cousins just on my father’s side of the family) and having watched my father grow up in a small town, live in poverty, and then with his limited education still have the drive and desire to have the wherewithal to send me to UT and allow me to become aware of a much larger world, but never allowing me to forget where we came from…..both were gifts of a life time." As a student, he was asked to volunteer at The Arc of the Capital Area, which was his first contact with people less fortunate than him. This experience developed his interest in pursuing psychology as a way to help people. He cites the Texas Cowboy motto as his guide in creating the endowment: “Give the best you have to Texas, and the best will come back to you.”

Dianne Grammer, also a UT alumna, was active in the Austin art community until her sudden passing in 2011. Her paintings of UT and the Texas Hill Country can be seen hanging at The University of Texas DKR Memorial Stadium, as well as in museums and exhibits across Texas and the US. Jerry notes that, “Her art captures the beauty and majesty of the Texas Hill Country.” He adds that since her passing, Warren Buffett has added Dianne’s work to his collection, now on display at his Santa Fe Burlington North Railway Company Museum in Ft. Worth, Texas. Proceeds from a recent retrospective of her life’s work last summer became the foundation for the endowed professorship in their name.

For very personal reasons, the areas of research of most interest to the Grammers, having affected their parents and other loved ones, are: 1) the etiology, prevention and treatment of depression; 2) behavioral and pharmacological approaches that might slow the progression of Parkinson’s Disease; 3) the effective treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; 4) the treatment and prevention of memory disorders, specifically Alzheimer’s and dementia; 5) the study and understanding of the role that stress and coping relate to disease, in particular, cardiovascular illness; and finally, 6) the psychology and promotion of artistic creativity.

The research of Tony Wells (PhD 2011) provides a prime example of the type of graduate student work that will benefit from the Grammer Endowment. Dr. Wells earned his PhD while studying under the guidance of Dr. Christopher Beevers, professor and director of the new Institute for Mental Health Research. After a clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University Medical School, Wells is now an assistant professor at Oklahoma State University.

While at UT, Dr. Wells focused on major depressive disorder (MDD) and its causes, as well as the development of novel treatments, such as cognitive bias modification (CBM)—a new therapy utilizing specialized computer software to retrain the brain to avoid harmful biases, or preferences, that can cause anxiety and depression.

In his first study, Wells and his colleagues trained college students with mild-to-moderate depression to focus more on the positive images in their environment, using CBM training. As this was one of the first studies to use CBM for depression (previous CBM software was used mostly to treat anxiety), he had to start by creating a CBM computer program specifically for depression. Once completed, students then participated in the CBM training two times a week, for two weeks. After the two weeks, students showed less symptoms of depression than when they had begun. Changing the focus of their eyes (and thus their minds) toward neutral images, as the software does, trained their brains to also focus on the neutral, rather than the negative, in their environments outside of the training. This study was researched and published while Dr. Wells at UT. The article can be seen at: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930802652388#preview.

Another groundbreaking study Dr. Wells participated in while at UT, published this month in the American Journal of Psychiatry (Am J Psychiatry 2014; 171:195–200), looks at how antidepressants work, and why they take so long to take effect in the body. Antidepressants tend to take some time to take effect in the patient’s body (usually 6-8 weeks), and researchers have not previously known how exactly they work or why they take so long to work. The researchers tracked the eye movements of patients with major depressive disorder (both medicated with antidepressants and those unmedicated), and matched them with subjects who were not diagnosed with depression. Utilizing an eye-tracking device, the researchers recorded which images the participants spent more time looking at—emotionally positive or negative/neutral images. Comparing the three groups, they found that the medicated subjects with depression spent more time looking at the positive images—an almost identical result to those with no depression. The unmedicated subjects with depression were focused more on the negative images.

This research suggests that antidepressants help patients focus more on the positive images in their environment, thus making their outlook more positive over all. The study proposes that the delay in effectiveness may be caused by the time it takes the brain to adapt to that way of thinking.

 

 The Hixon Fellowship in Statistics

Given the explosion of data in the last 20 years, statisticians who are well trained in the proper quantitative analysis of data are in high demand. Providing such specialized training is a passion for Dr. Greg Hixon. A Lecturer in the Psychology Department who teaches courses in statistics and computational analytics, he received his Ph.D. from the department in 1991, with a concentration in social psychology and a specialization in statistics. “The education and training I received here in the Psychology Department, much of it from folks who are still here, was truly second-to-none, “ he recalls of his time here as a student, “and for me an important part of that was the opportunity to pursue extensive training and coursework in statistical analysis—which was a rather different field at that time in comparison to what it is today.”

His experience teaching at UT and consulting in a broad array of fields, including investment analytics, environmental sciences and toxicology, has given him a bird’s eye view of just how much the analytics landscape has changed over the last few decades. “I tell my classes all the time that the last couple of decades have belonged to the people who developed the hardware and software technologies that allow the collection of massive amounts of data,” he notes, “but that the coming decades will belong to people who know how to extract knowledge from all of that data. “ He goes on, “The ability to formulate and execute proper statistical analysis is an increasingly critical one, and statistical education will benefit both academic and non-academic careers. Given how I have benefited from the training I received here, I’m looking to give back.”

Dr. Hixon has funded a fellowship intended to support a graduate student in psychology who wants to pursue enhanced statistical work as part of his or her training. The Hixon Fellowship in Statistics will provide a $2,500 annual award, eligible to psychology department graduate students entering their third year or above, who already have a background in their specialty area and know that they want to pursue more statistical training.

Dr. Hixon says that a number of factors contributed to his wanting to establish the fellowship. In addition to the value he sees in statistical training and his overall desire to give back to a program that benefited him, he notes a more personal reason:

“I had an uncle who was a high school teacher in rural Ohio who was not wealthy by even the most expansive definition of that term, but he managed to save some money over his lifetime. As he neared retirement, he established a number of scholarships for high school students. Obviously, he was hoping to help those students, and I know he was looking forward to seeing the impact of those scholarships on their lives. Unfortunately, soon thereafter he passed away suddenly and was never able to see the students gain from what he’d done. I’d actually like to be able to see that, and so that’s part of my motivation in doing this now.”

Dr. Hixon adds, “Graduate school is not a lucrative place for students, and a fellowship like this can go a long way toward supporting someone who wants to pursue further statistical training. The fellowship money is a help in the short-term, but the long-term benefits are even more important. In the long term, the training in statistics and analytics will help the student’s employment prospects in or out of academia, and with the enhanced statistical knowledge the student will be in a position to extract everything they meaningfully can from their on-going research data —with obvious benefits to both the student and to the advancement of science.”

A number of students in UT’s doctoral psychology program are engaged in work that could well benefit from such support, as well as from the overall spirit of affirmation and encouragement that Dr. Hixon’s fellowship represents. An example is this sort of project is being pursued by Daniel Briley in Prof. Elliott Tucker-Drob’s Lifespan Development Lab. The age-old question of the relative contributions of “nature” or “nurture” in human development have given way in our time to more nuanced “both/and” models that reflect reciprocal and mutual influences and multiple interaction pathways. There is, in other words, a growing recognition of the ways developing children influence how their environments influence them, and breakthrough findings in this area will depend on advanced statistical methods, which constitute critical tools for demonstrating and teasing out more than just one-way effects.

Daniel Briley is involved in a project in which he and his lab are developing analytic models of the interplay between child academic achievement, child approaches to learning, and parental educational expectations over time and in terms of genetic and environmental influences. He finds that parents influence their children’s development, but also that children influence the parenting they receive, and that these mutual influences help to shape trajectories of academic achievement.

In a related study, he is looking at the link between academic interest and actual achievement and how that relation is moderated by socio-economic status (SES). In higher SES environments, interest is a better predictor of achievement. He finds that, “students from more well-off families are able to turn their academic interests into actual academic knowledge, but students from less well-off families tend to face obstacles when turning interests into knowledge.” He argues that more freely available, high quality educational experiences may help alleviate this problem.

Daniel notes that he has received excellent statistical instruction from his mentor and lab, and observes that “added support would allow further exposure to additional approaches and perspectives that can augment that training.” He expresses a definite sense of personal satisfaction in such work: “I love it—thinking of a question and how to analyze it—and the stats are a big part of that.”

A recent graduate student who also benefited greatly from statistics training in our department is Annie Steele. Upon graduation, Annie was scooped up by Facebook, the online social networking service, to use her statistical analysis skills for User Experience research. She explains, “We develop mixed-methods (qualitative and quantitative) research projects focused on learning how we can make Facebook more useful for people around the world. I get to work with some really Big Data!” She says that her statistics training at UT, especially the classes with Dr. Hixon, “exposed me to best-practices and bleeding-edge techniques, but, even more importantly, it gave me the confidence to continue teaching myself. As a result, I have been able to collaborate with and learn from Facebook's world-class research scientists.”

 

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