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Department of Human Development and Family Studies

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Special Section: Department of Human Development and Family Studies

Individuality Matters Professor creates paradigm shift in the way researchers collect and analyze data on human subjects. Creating maps or models of brain connectivity—the complex relationships among the billions of neurons that are responsible for reason, memory, and emotion—eventually could lead to better understanding of the intricate information processing that underlies normal and deviant cognitive functioning and its development throughout the life span. Yet, creating models that estimate brain connectivity networks across people is difficult because no two brains are the same. “Brain connectivity models often are parameterized with data that have been collected from many people and then pooled across those people,” said Peter Molenaar, Distinguished Professor of Human Development and Family Studies and of Psychology. “But every person is unique, so using such methods gives spurious results.” Using a set of powerful theorems, known as ergodic theorems, Molenaar has come up with a way to account for the individual differences among people. Rather than pooling across individuals, he uses a person-specific approach wherein he closely examines just a few individuals and then builds models from that information. “One problem with this approach is that when you start by fitting individual models to individual subjects you get models all over the place,” said Molenaar. “If the goal of science is to come up with common laws, how do you bring commonality to a bunch of heterogeneous models? We’ve found a really good method to do that.” Molenaar joined the faculty at Penn State in 2005 after working as a professor for twenty-nine years at the University of Amsterdam. Since his arrival at Penn State, he and his former graduate student Katie Gates ’11g HDFS, and others, have applied the person-specific approach to the study of brain connectivity using the University’s functional magnetic resonance (fMRI) machine. Molenaar also has applied it to the study of electroencephalography (EEG) data, or electrical activity in the brain, as well as to electrodermal activity and heart rate. Molenaar said his person-specific approach can be applied to a variety of other problems as well, including the creation of nanotechnological devices that make continuous measurements of processes within our bodies and the optimization of instructional effort to meet the learning goals of individual students with the least possible effort and maximum enjoyment. One area in which he has done some work is in advancing the idea of an artificial pancreas. In their study, he and his colleagues monitored the blood-sugar levels of five people with type 1 diabetes, as well as their intake of insulin and carbohydrates. “We fitted to each individual patient a dynamic model, and based on that model we could predict with more than 90 percent fidelity what would be the blood glucose level of that particular patient one-half hour later,” said Molenaar. “So we have all the tools and ingredients necessary to create an artificial pancreas.” Molenaar explained that the way in which he conducted the study with diabetes patients is similar to the way in which he conducts

other studies using the person-specific approach—by using the same basic model type for all subjects, but obtaining the parameter values at the individual level. “You can make a chip and on that chip is a particular model,” he said. “You integrate the chip to the insulin pump of a patient; it takes say one day to tune itself to the patient, to adapt mathematically to him or her; and then it goes to work. So the generality is no longer at the lowest level of the data; it is at a higher level of the model.” Another area to which Molenaar has applied his person-specific approach is in psychotherapy. In 1987, he published a paper about a single patient who received sixty-two psychotherapy sessions. Molenaar took that information and fitted it to a time-series model, or a model containing data points collected at equally spaced time intervals. He concluded that time-series models are suitable for studying individual people and that results from such models can be used to build scientific laws that apply to larger populations. Molenaar said that his success in promoting the person-specific approach—which is disliked by some because of its newness, yet accepted by most because of its correctness—is timeliness. “We have on our side what Germans call the Zeitgeist, or the spirit of the times,” he said, “because medicine is going in the direction of personalized care and we have all these gadgets, like smartphones and nanotech devices, with which we can measure people almost continuously during their daily lives. Person-specific methodology is the future.”


Photo Courtesy: Nandi Nelson

Alumna Rises Above Circumstances On the surface, there wasn’t much about her background to suggest Nandi Nelson ’12 HDFS would one day attend graduate school. After all, she was a child of the Hill District, a primarily African American neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pa., in which about 40 percent of residents live below poverty level and where drug use and gun violence are commonplace. Needless to say, very few residents of the Hill District attend college, and fewer still go on to graduate school. And if that wasn’t enough, her father was in prison. “Having my father incarcerated was very tough for me growing up, especially when I would see my friends with their fathers and I could only see mine on certain days,” said Nelson. “Having my father incarcerated was also embarrassing to me because I felt as though people would judge me.” But despite the odds against her, Nelson graduated from Penn State this spring with a bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies and a minor in psychology, and she is en route to attend the University of Michigan’s master of social work program this fall. While at Penn State, Nelson maintained a high grade-point average, even earning a 4.0 during the spring 2011 semester. “I cannot recall ever getting a 4.0 in my life, so this was an amazing accomplishment as well as a shock being that I never thought I could do it, especially at the college level,” she said. Nelson’s other achievements include receiving numerous scholarships and awards, including an Alumni Board Life Promise Award and a Student Support Services Program Award. She also participated in the Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares select students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. To that end, Nelson conducted a research project under faculty mentor Daphne Hernandez, assistant professor, titled “Father Incarceration and its Role on Coparenting Support and Parenting Stress.” She found that fathers who had experienced incarceration reported less coparenting support and more parenting stress compared to fathers who never experienced incarceration. She also found that mothers whose spouses or partners had experienced incarceration reported less coparenting support compared to mothers whose spouses or partners had never experienced incarceration. For her efforts, she earned a Peter

T. Luckie Award for Excellence in Research from Penn State. Nelson’s achievements in college did not come easily. One of her biggest challenges, she said, was mustering the confidence needed to keep moving forward. “Being that it is a predominantly white campus I often felt a bit intimidated in my classes and viewed myself as not being as capable as those around me,” she said. “After reminding myself that I deserved to be a student at Penn State I soon became more confident in myself and made a promise to myself to become as competitive as possible.” Nelson credits several Penn Staters with helping her in this regard, including Hernandez; Keith Wilson, professor of education, who supervised her internship at his private practice; and Joyce HopsonKing, director of diversity enhancement in the College of Health and Human Development, who served as her social mentor. During the spring semester Nelson conducted an internship at a Pittsburgh public school, called University Prep, where she served as a student service assistant. Her responsibilities included helping to lead therapy groups, assisting the school’s social worker with truancy issues, and working to increase attendance for the afterschool program. Nelson hopes to continue this type of social work after she finishes her master’s degree by running her own private therapy practice. She also plans to obtain a Ph.D. degree so she can have the option to teach and do research. “I believe that having a degree in HDFS will benefit me greatly in the future,” she said. “I do not say this just because of the weight that the Penn State brand holds, but I feel as though I am prepared and have been granted a wide range of experiences that can prepare me for multiple career choices.” Not only is Nelson excited about her future, her family is too, which was evident by the number of family members and friends who attended her graduation—twelve to be exact. “My mother always told me that, at the age of 3, I promised her that I would go to college because I did not want to struggle like her,” she said. “I am blessed that I have had the opportunity to make my family proud.”


Special Section: Department of Human Development and Family Studies

Sherry Corneal: Decades of Inspiring Students More than two decades after joining the faculty of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, Associate Professor Sherry Corneal continues to make a difference in students’ lives and leaves a lasting impression on graduates long after they leave Happy Valley. “In 1930, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, in an effort to alleviate the effects of the... Anyone? Anyone?... the Great Depression, passed the... Anyone? Anyone? The tariff bill, the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act, Which, anyone?”

at the university level as one of my professional aspirations. Though I am not a current student of Sherry’s, she continues to support me in all of my academic endeavors by providing me with opportunities to advance my education and career.”

In this clip from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, actor Ben Stein dryly lectures to an audience of blank-faced, unengaged students; one kid even dozes on his desk as saliva pools around his mouth. Stein’s character in the movie is the cliché uninteresting teacher.

Even today, Corneal continues to engage students in an investigation of science, practice, and everyday life.

In the real world, Sherry Corneal, associate professor, is quite the opposite. In fact, for more than two decades her students have extolled her for her contagious enthusiasm.

“She was always excited and energetic during lectures and was really funny at appropriate times. I learned so much information that I can actually apply to my life and to the real world,” said a third.

One former student, who graduated in 2008, said: “Sitting for an interview for a doctorate program last March, the admissions representative asked me about the discrepancy in my grade-point average between the beginning of my academic career at Penn State and my last years. I attributed the difference to personal reasons, but I did not mention the impetus for the change. Without question, Dr. Sherry Corneal was the catalyst for my increased focus on my academic success and development of professional goals. It was Sherry’s unique style as a professor that ultimately led me to include teaching

A recent visit to one of Corneal’s classes proves the students’ points. Her lectures are full of examples, which she pulls from research, current events, and her personal life. She presents these examples in a conversational manner, all the while walking around the lecture hall and generally getting into people’s faces—in a friendly, non-intimidating way.

“Sherry is one of the most interesting professors I’ve encountered at Penn State,” said one student.

“She is part scientist and part storyteller, drawing upon recent news events and life experiences that most students can relate to,” says Steven Zarit, professor and head of the department, “Her careful-


Photo Credit: Paul Hazi (4)

“Even though there were 600 people in the class, I always felt that she was talking directly to me,” said one student.

ly drawn explanations and vignettes convey concepts and research findings in clear, memorable ways without ever over-simplifying.” According to Corneal, who at age 65 says she has no plans to retire, presenting a list of facts to students is no way to teach. “I present material as speculative, open for discussion, and able to be attached to the student’s experience,” she says. “In this way my teaching style is conversational. I treat students as curious and intelligent individuals, and I have this really important and exciting information that I want to share with them.” Corneal taught her first class in 1986 as a master’s student at Penn State. She continued to teach while she worked toward her Ph.D. degree. Now as an associate professor, she makes teaching her top priority. “I quickly discovered that I had a passion for teaching,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like work to me and for that I am blessed.” Corneal’s background as an individual and family therapist allows her to bring real-world experience to her classroom. After earning a bachelor’s degree in individual and family studies at Penn State in 1974, she worked as a caseworker at Counseling

Services, Inc., and then as a casework supervisor and family therapist at Counsel House, a former psychiatric day treatment center in Bellefonte, Pa., where she eventually became the acting director. She then worked as an individual and family therapist at the Devereaux Foundation in Atlanta, Ga., followed by The Learning Center in State College. In addition, Corneal worked as a consultant to Stepping Stone Transitional Living, a division of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau. Corneal is continually recognized for her teaching by receiving a wide array of student-generated awards. For example, when, in 2007, The Daily Collegian asked students to vote for the “Best Professor” at Penn State and the “Best Course” at Penn State, Corneal won top honors for both. She also has been recognized with the 2011 George W. Atherton Award for Excellence in Teaching, which honors excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level. “While it is wonderful that Sherry has received formal recognition for her talents,” says Zarit, “there is no better evidence of her teaching skills than the notes and emails I have received over the years from students who tell me that taking her courses has changed their lives.”


Special Section: Department of Human Development and Family Studies

Alumna’s Gifts Improve Children’s Lives Photo Credit: Gene Maylock

Giving to one’s alma mater is a great feeling, but very few of us know what it’s like to make a donation so sizeable that it has the potential to drastically change people’s lives. Edna Peterson Bennett Pierce ’53 H EC knows what this feels like. Over the years, she has donated millions of dollars to Penn State and the College of Health and Human Development with the singular goal of improving the lives of children. “I never thought I would be able to give so much,” she said. “It is an awesome feeling!” Edna grew up in Beaver, Pa., eventually attending Penn State as one of the University’s “Famous 500,” the first freshman class of women admitted to the University Park campus following World War II. After earning a bachelor’s degree in home economics in 1953, she planned to open a nursery school. Instead, she had six children of her own with husband Gene Bennett whom she met at Penn State. Gene, a chemist, helped found F&M Scientific Corporation, which later was sold to Hewlett Packard. “Gene used to say that my target occupation, that of a nursery school educator, was the most important occupation in the world, yet the least lucrative; that no one in that career would ever have the money to give back in a substantial way,” said Pierce. “So that’s what we set out to do.” The couple’s first gift to Penn State was made in 1991 and created an endowment to establish and maintain The Bennett Playground, which recently was rededicated at its new location at The Child Care Center at Hort Woods. Edna and Gene greatly enjoyed being involved in the establishment of the playground, being kept up to date about the purchase and installation of new equipment, celebrating its dedication, and visiting it often over the next five years. In 1996, however, Edna was faced with many challenges. “That was a really difficult year for me,” said Edna. “I lost my husband, my brother, and two of my aunts. When my dog also died, I sat down on the floor with the dog in my lap and sobbed. It was the first time that year that I was really able to cry.” And if losing so many loved ones wasn’t enough, Edna also was diagnosed with cancer that year. It was during her chemotherapy treatment that she decided to marry a 28-year acquaintance named Bud Pierce ’50 AGR. “We decided that a life together would be better than a life alone,” said Edna. Since that time, Edna, with the blessing of her children, funded the creation of the Bennett Family Center, the first free-standing child care center on the Penn State University Park campus. Edna also has provided numerous gifts to the College of Health and Human Development, which have helped establish the college as a leader in prevention science. She created the Edna P. Bennett Chair in Prevention Research, which is held by Mark Greenberg, director of the Penn State Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development. She also created a college-wide career development professorship focused on children’s health and development.

Edna Peterson Bennett Pierce and her husband Bud Pierce.

In addition, Edna supported the renovation of the Henderson Building’s Living Center, where faculty and staff members, students, and alumni meet to celebrate and learn together. She also made one of the key gifts responsible for the Biobehavioral Health Building, a new building currently under construction that will house the Department of Biobehavioral Health, the Center for Healthy Aging, the Developmental Systems Group, the Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development, and the college’s Information Systems and Services. Edna’s most recent gift to the college established the Home Economics Heritage Fund, the goal of which is to support education on the original themes of the Home Economics program, including the study of families, child development, and nutrition. For her devotion to the University, Penn State named Edna Philanthropist of the Year for 2012. “Over the years, Edna has given so much to the college and University,” said Ann C. Crouter, Raymond E. and Erin Stuart Schultz Dean of the College of Health and Human Development. “But one thing about her philanthropy has stayed the same: she has remained committed to finding ways to improve children’s lives.” From her home on the border of Pennsylvania and Delaware, Edna spends quiet days gardening and swimming—she swims a mile each day to stay fit. But her greatest joy comes from spending time with her eighteen grandchildren. “I have always loved children,” she said. “They are just amazing to watch; they are so eager to learn. I love seeing their little eyes light up when they learn they can do something all by themselves. I feel very blessed to have my family and to be able to help children everywhere by supporting research and education at Penn State.”


Course Offers Insight Into Complex Topics of Adoption

It is a challenge to portray an accurate and comprehensive view of adoption in the United States because secrecy is involved in some adoptions. However, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children, Youth and Families recorded 51,000 domestic adoptions with public child welfare agency involvement during fiscal year 2010—the most recent data available and a figure that has remained relatively stable since 2002 but reached a high of 57,000 in 2009. The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs logged 9,319 intercountry adoptions during the U.S. government’s fiscal year 2011, which ended Sept. 30. During the last decade, intercountry adoptions peaked at 22,991 adoptions in 2004. In summer 2009, Crissman Ishler recognized the lack of coverage the topic of adoption received at Penn State as well as at universities across America. Through her research, Crissman Isher has only been able to find one other course from universities across the country that specifically focuses on the topic of adoption—the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which offers a course on the psychology of adoption. Since adopting her daughter from Guatemala in 2005, she holds the subject of adoption near and dear to her heart, and she believes it is an important topic for students to learn about. “I had been in HDFS for four years and began looking at courses. There was an involvement gap with adoption. It wasn’t covered much,” Crissman Ishler said. “I approached my boss to ask if I could teach the course for professional development but also because a large number of people either know someone or have been directly impacted by adoption and would be able to relate to a course on adoption.” Right away, students showed interest. “The first semester it was offered, spring 2010, the class had forty-five spots available,” Crissman Ishler said. “Those spots filled up right away. I had to ask if we could increase the class for more students to join. It ended up filling to ninety students before we had to cut it off. It went very well.” The course is designed to provide students with in-depth information revolving around adoption. Topics covered include open and closed adoptions, domestic and international adoption, domestic partner issues—from myths and stereotypes to states’ legal requirements of those seeking to adopt—and the positives and negatives that can occur throughout the adoption process. However, Crissman Ishler’s main objective focuses on encouraging her students to critically think about the emotional aspects of adoption.

Photo Courtesy: Jennifer Crissman Ishler

In recent years, the idea of adoption has been seen regularly in the public eye as celebrities such as Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and Sandra Bullock are adopting internationally to grow their clans. However, there’s a lot more to be said about adoption, and Jennifer Crissman Ishler, senior instructor, has made it her mission to give students a crash course on the ins and outs of this complex process.

Jennifer Crissman Ishler and her husband Matt visit their daughter Emily at kindergarten.

“At the end of the day, I want students to know the five core issues— loss, rejection, guilt, grief, and identity—that affect the three triad members—birth parents, adoptive child, and adoptive parents,” noted Crissman Ishler. “It’s about learning the psychological and emotional aspects included in adoption and asking, ‘How are families formed?’ ” “In general, just having an understanding of the different types of adoptions has expanded my thoughts and ideas,” said Kristi Bricker, a senior who has taken the course. “When you go into a course like this you think you have a good understanding, but I quickly realized my understandings were all the myths of adoption. No matter who you are, you will walk in thinking certain things and you will walk out with a new grasp on the idea of adoption.” Crissman Ishler believes learning about adoption helps to broaden students’ knowledge base and encourages students to consider critical questions. “Have they thought about issues of race? Stopped to think about the birth mom and birth dad, what about them? How has adoption affected them?” Crissman Ishler asked. “This course encourages students to take a deep, thoughtful and critical look at adoption. It ties research into the idea of adoption and realizing it’s not just about pop culture. We’re required to ask the question, ‘How has adoption changed trends in the world?’” “By taking this course I have already felt a calling into the adoption world,” said Bricker. “Whether it’s adopting children later in my life or working for an adoption agency, I feel that this is something that’s going to stick with me. Each class I walk out learning something new and expanding on what I have learned from the previous classes.” In the future, Crissman Ishler hopes to continue providing this course, currently listed as HDFS 453, to students. “Adoption impacts everyone,” Crissman Ishler stated. “People are always connected to adoption in some way; whether they know someone who has been adopted or they were personally adopted. It’s a great thing.”


Special Section: Department of Human Development and Family Studies

Photo Credit: Paul Hazi

Peter Molenaar Named Distinguished Professor Penn State has named Peter Molenaar, professor of human development and family studies and of psychology, a distinguished professor. The honor—which recognizes exceptional teaching, research, creativity, and service to the University community—is awarded by the Office of the President based on the recommendations of colleagues and the dean. An important aim of the field of psychology is to describe, explain, and guide processes occurring at the level of individual subjects. Molenaar has shown that the appropriate methodology required for realizing this aim has to be based on personspecific analyses of intra-individual variation. He is applying his new person-specific methodology to a variety of psychological processes, including mother-child interaction, personality development, and cognitive aging. He also is working on additional applications to individual psycho-therapeutic processes and brain imaging. In addition, he is applying state-of-the-art engineering techniques to optimally guide learning and developmental processes as well as disease processes. He currently is working on applying control theory to patientspecific optimal treatment of diabetes type I and asthma patients. Prior to joining the Penn State faculty in 2005, Molenaar was a professor and head of the Department of Psychological Methodology at the University of Amsterdam. He also served as head of the Department of Cognitive Developmental Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. From 1993 to 1996, he was a visiting professor at Penn State. Molenaar earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1972, master’s degrees in mathematical psychology and psychophysiology in 1976, and a Ph.D. degree in social sciences in 1981, all from the University of Utrecht in The Netherlands.

Lisa Gatzke-Kopp Receives National Science Foundation CAREER Award Lisa Gatzke-Kopp, assistant professor, has been honored with a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The CAREER award is the most prestigious award given by the NSF in support of junior faculty members who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent teaching, and the integration of education and research. Gatzke-Kopp’s research focuses on understanding the biological interface between the environment and brain development and its impact on the development of psychopathology in children. She is particularly interested in how children develop behavior problems such as aggression, hyperactivity, and substance abuse. Research has shown that such problems likely evolve when innate vulnerability interacts with environmental stressors. By investigating the neurobiological dysfunction that contributes to this vulnerability, Gatzke-Kopp aims to identify the experiential and environmental factors that exacerbate or ameliorate risk. Gatzke-Kopp joined the faculty of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in 2007. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1996 and a Ph.D. degree in psychology at the University of Southern California in 2003.

Human Development and Family Studies APG The HDFS APG seeks to unite HDFS alumni (and alumni of predecessor majors) in order to serve alumni, faculty and staff members, and students of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. Below is an update from the HDFS APG’s president about current APG activities and ways to get involved. We recently established an HDFS LinkedIn group to promote networking among alumni, students, and faculty members (please see below). We are sponsoring an Ice Cream Social for HDFS alumni on Saturday, July 14, during the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts from 1:30-3:30 p.m. in the Bennett Pierce Living Center, room 110 Henderson Building. To attend, please contact the HHD Office of Alumni Relations at 814-865-3831 or hhdevents@psu.edu. We are hosting an alumni speaker in the classroom event during the fall semester to discuss child welfare issues. If you are interested in sharing your expertise in the classroom or as part of an alumni panel discussion with students, please contact John Soubik. We are in the process of developing on online mentoring program. Please stay tuned for more information.

Connect with the Affiliate Program Group Website alumni.hhdev.psu.edu/hdfs LinkedIn “Penn State: HDFS Alumni, Students, and Academic Faculty” APG President John A. Soubik, ’85 IFS HDFSAPG@yahoo.com


Health and Human Development Magazine - Summer 2012 / SPECIAL SECTION: HDFS