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FALL 2016 | WELCOME BACK TO SCHOOL The Psychology Update is a news magazine written for students, faculty and alumni of the UAB Department of Psychology UAB PSYCHOLOGY UPDATE EXECUTIVE EDITOR Karlene Ball, Ph.D. EDITOR + CONTENT Mary Frances Thetford, M.Ed. CONTENT + DESIGN Lauren Vardaman FOLLOW UAB PSYCHOLOGY

Inside Psychology Welcomes Dynamic Duo 05

Student Research Spotlight 06

2016 Holiday Schedule 07

Faculty Research Spotlight 08

Alumni Homecoming Activities 12

New Psychology Courses 13 To be an internationally recognized research department and a first choice for education.

apply behavioral science for the benefit of all people.

To discover knowledge about behavior and its underlying biology and teach and

Department Achievements 4


DR. DESPINA STAVRINOS served as the keynote speaker for the 2016 UAB Summer Expo. The Summer Expo was held on July 21 in the Hill Student Center. The Summer Expo showcases the research and service learning work being produced by UAB undergraduates and other students in UAB summer research programs, summer REU programs, and other summer opportunities. Dr. Stavrinos was also awarded a $30,000 CAS Interdisciplinary Team Award that will run 9/1/16 to 8/31/17.

HALEY JOHNSON BISHOP Was granted the Civitan Trainee Travel Award. This is a $1,000 travel award that she will be using to present her research at the Annual International Meeting for Autism Research in San Francisco, California in May of 2017. Haley was also featured in an article entitled “Transportation Researchers Make a Difference” in Volume 3: Issue 5 of Fast Forward. To read the article, visit http://fastforwardtransportation. com/V3-safety-transresearch.html.


has been named recipient of the Graduate Student Spotlight award. Mary Lynch is a fourth year graduate student in the Medical/Clinical Psychology Doctoral Program under the mentorship of Burel Goodin, Ph.D. Mary’s areas of research interest include examining correlates of poor health-related quality of life in children living with gastrointestinal diseases and the effects of disordered sleep on children’s health. Mary is recognized as an outstanding student who has made contributions to the field of pediatric psychology through research, clinical work, teaching, and service.

STACIE TOTSCH received the 2015 Best Paper Award from the Science Unbound Foundation for her paper entitled “Total Western Diet Alters Mechanical and Thermal Sensitivity and Prolongs Hypersensitivity Following Complete Freund’s Adjuvant in Mice.” Totsch was nominated by her mentor Dr. Robert Sorge and received $500 with the award.

EISENHOWER GRADUATE FELLOWSHIP PROGRAM Psychology Graduate students Caitlin Pope, Haley Johnson Bishop, and Shannon Wittig were all accepted into the 2016 USDOT Eisenhower Graduate Fellowship Program. Each student was awarded a fellowship which will provide $5000 to be used towards their stipend and to cover travel expenses to the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board (TRB) 2017 where they will accept this award.


20 YEARS at Dauphin Island Sea Lab Twenty years ago, as a UAB faculty member, Dr. Kent Keyser approached the Dauphin Island Sea Lab with an idea. For almost three weeks each summer, around a dozen graduate students travel to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab for an Introduction to Neurobiology course. Lectures, labs and individual projects give students a chance to learn about the fundamental basis of neuronal communication. Labs include isolating muscular nerves in crayfish to learn about action potentials and stimulating limulus optic nerves to learn about light sensitivity. Students also learn about patch clamping and voltage clamping techniques for studying the responses of individual neurons. Keyser believes the students’ success is linked to the students working and living together at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab. “They have this cohort of students when they get to UAB that they can hang out with,” Keyser explained. This connection allows the students to enter graduate school with a grounding in the basics of neuroscience, learned vocabulary and concepts, as well as a strong study group. Another strong point for the class is that it’s not just for neuroscience majors, and covers a variety of biological science fields thanks to a team of UAB faculty members. To read the article in its entirety, visit:

Psychology Welcomes

A DYNAMIC DUO Dr. Jessica Mirman Dr. Jessica Mirman is a scientist, educator, and mentor in the Lifespan Developmental Psychology program who conducts basic and applied research in the area of child and adolescent health and development. Dr. Mirman attended the University of Delaware from 1998-2002 earning a BA in Psychology, and Fordham University from 2002-2006 earning a PhD in Applied Developmental Psychology. She completed her practicum training at The Children’s Aid Society of New York focusing on the development and evaluation of health promotion programs for children and their parents. Dr. Mirman then spent two years in the non-profit sector developing and evaluating positive youth development programs for at-risk youth in Philadelphia. Prior to joining the faculty at UAB, she was a Scientist at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Research Institute and Division of Adolescent Medicine from 2008-2016. She joined the faculty of Department of Psychology at University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2016.

Dr. Dan Mirman Dr. Daniel Mirman received a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Psychology from Cornell University in 2000 and his PhD in 2005 from Carnegie Mellon University and the interdisciplinary cognitive neuroscience program in the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition. His doctoral work combined behavioral experiments and computational modeling to study how auditory perception and language knowledge interact during speech perception. He then completed a post-doctoral fellowship at University of Connecticut where he learned eye-tracking methods for on-line measurement of speech comprehension and began to study how knowledge of concepts is organized in the mind. In 2009 he joined the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI) where he began his research on the neural organization of spoken language processing in individuals with language deficits following stroke (aphasia). From 2013 to 2016 he was on the faculty of the Department of Psychology at Drexel University while continuing his work at MRRI. He joined the faculty of Department of Psychology at University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2016.


The Study Researchers asked 38 undergraduate students to complete a graduate-level entrance exam. The students were divided into two groups. Following the exam, one group was given 15 minutes to rest, while the other group performed 15 minutes of highintensity interval training on a treadmill. Participants also spent 35 minutes simply relaxing as a control condition the week before. While relaxing, students were told not to engage in any mentally or physically stimulating activities, such as reading, stretching or holding a conversation. Afterward, each group was offered an allyou-can-eat lunch of pizza.

Exercising After Mentally Demanding Tasks Could Help Prevent Overeating, study finds by Tiffany Westry

Those who took the exam and then rested for 15 minutes ate an average of 100 calories more than when they simply relaxed without performing mental work, which reinforces previous studies that suggest working our brains does expend energy and causes feelings of hunger. Participants who exercised after the exam ate 25 calories less than when they simply relaxed for 35 minutes and then ate.

the findings While blood glucose remained stable in participants following exercise, their lactate levels increased significantly. “Lactate may have replenished the brain’s energy needs; however, the authors note that further investigation into how glucose and lactate may impact mental work and eating behavior is needed.” The authors also note that further research is needed to fully understand

A study by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggests exercise may be the key to curbing your appetite after a long day at the office.

the observed effect exercise had on participants’ energy intake following mental work. “One possible explanation is exercise’s effect on hunger and satiety hormones may decrease energy intake after activities that stimulate one’s appetite,” Neumeier said. “Our findings

In a paper published this month in the journal, “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,” researchers found that people who exercised after doing mental work ate fewer calories compared to those who did

corroborate findings by other research groups and build on them by being the first to report a statistically significant difference in energy intake between participants’ completing mental work and a meal, or mental work and exercise then a meal.”

mental work and remained sedentary. “The modern work environment is highly sedentary and cognitively demanding,” said William Neumeier, Ph.D., lead author of the study. “Previous studies have shown that mentally demanding tasks, such as a big test, grant deadlines or other mentally strenuous tasks we perform every day, affect the brain’s energy demands, and increases in food intake were observed following such tasks. In this study, we explore whether glucose and

About William Neumeier is a graduate of the UAB College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Psychology and is currently conducting postdoctoral studies through the UAB School of Health Professions UAB|Lakeshore Research Collaborative and the UAB Nutrition Obesity Research Center. His research interests in the link between psychology, exercise and obesity have been supported by UAB faculty across several academic areas. This research was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute T32 grant and a pilot research grant from the UAB School of Education Department of Human Studies.

lactate produced through exercise could serve as a way to provide additional energy for brain function, instead of food consumption.” 6 PSYCHOLOGY UPDATE // FALL 2016

Co-authors and supervisors of this study include Emily Goodner, Fred Biasini, Ph.D., Emily Dhurandhar, Ph.D., Kristi Menear, Ph.D., Bulent Turan, Ph.D., and Gary Hunter, Ph.D.

HOLIDAY SCHEDULE Last Day of Class December 9 Fall Examinations December 12-16 Commencement December 17 Christmas Offices closed December 23-26 New Years Offices closed December 30-January 2


FACULTY FOCUS Dr. rajesh kana

Connections Using Neuroimaging to Map the Brains of People with Autism Spectrum Disorder From the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Magazine

“This is your brain on drugs” Perhaps no other analogy has done as much to illustrate brain function as the now-famous 1987 public service announcement aimed at reducing narcotics use. But Dr. Rajesh Kana, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and Director of the Cognition, Brain and Autism Laboratory at the Civitan International Research Center (CIRC), has a few metaphors of his own that explain how the brains of austistic people work. “When I give talks, I often tell people to think about airports,” he says. “Our research findings indicate that so much about Autism Spectrum Disorder is about the quality of the connections between different regions of the brain. For example, it’s easy to get from Birmingham to Atlanta, Memphis, or Nashville. But it’s harder to get from Birmingham to Amsterdam. So, the local connectivity of the Birmingham Airport is pretty good; whereas its long-distance connectivity is rather poor. In the same way, those long connections in the brain, from the visual cortex in the back of the brain to the front of the brain, can be easily disrupted in people with ASD.” “You can also think about the strength of those connections,” he continues. “You don’t want a connection that is too high with too many signals, or one that is too low with too little input. It’s like your mobile phone,” he says. “If the connection is too weak, then you won’t be able to receive calls. It has to be optimum. For people with ASD, their connections may be too high, or too low, resulting in disrupted connectivity.” 8 PSYCHOLOGY UPDATE // FALL 2016


Collecting Images Dr. Kana, who came to UAB from Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, was one of only a handful of neuroimaging researchers on campus when he arrived nine years ago. He was drawn to UAB for several reasons, including the opportunity to work with children with developmental disabilities, the interdisciplinary opportunities that were available between the Psychology department and the School of Medicine, the commitment to autism research by thenCivitan director Dr. Harry Sontheimer, and the availability of MRI scanners that could advance his research. Within a short six months his operation was up and running, and within a few years, several other researchers working in neuroimaging had joined UAB. “I think there were three or four of us when I started, and today there are 20 or more,” Kana says. Kana’s approach is to see the brain as a whole. “We’re looking at signatures, at those connections,” he says. “Traditionally, researchers in the field were looking for focal, isolated neural stamps or flags that one could identify as causes of autism. But there’s never been a consistent or clear focal marker. By focusing on parts, one may be addressing only half the story. We want to see parts as well as how the whole brain works together as a team—the crosstalk between regions and how those regions influence each other.” Kana looks at a few key areas in people who are on the higher end of the autism spectrum: the function of the brain, particularly during a social tasks such as mindreading; the brain’s mass, including the thickness and volume of the cortex; the white matter of the brain measured using diffusion tensor imaging (DTI); and the chemical composition of the brain, as measured by magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS). “For example, one way we measure the brain’s function—its connectivity and activity—is to ask children to infer emotion based on language or a scene from a movie clip,” he explains. “We will put them into a scanner and then show them a movie clip and ask them to tell us what the characters are feeling based on facial expressions and body language. Or we will run tests that challenge them to detect absurdity in language by giving them a series of sentences such as, ‘It is freezing cold outside. It may be a good idea to not wear a jacket while going out.’ Typically ASD individuals have a difficult time identifying those absurdities.”

Autism researchers in the Department of Psychology Dr. Frank Amthor, Professor

• Director, Behavioral Neuroscience Graduate Program • Research interests: neural computation, retinal physiology

Dr. Fred Biasini, Associate Professor

• Director, Lifespan Developmental Psychology Program • Research and teaching interests: ASD, effects of parent-infant interaction on development, social development, children of substance abusers

Dr. Kristi Guest, Assistant Professor

• Disabilities Services Coordinator for UAB Head Start Program • Research Coordinator for UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics and UAB Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) • Research interests: ASD, developmental psychology, infant and child development

Dr. Maria Hopkins, Associate Professor

• Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology • Research interests: ASD, social-emotional development in children

Dr. Rajesh Kana, Associate Professor

• Co-Director, Undergraduate Neuroscience Program • Director, Cognition, Brain, and Autism Laboratory • Research interests: social, cognitive and affective neuroscience, neuroimaging, autism spectrum disorders, brain and language

Dr. Sarah O’Kelley, Assistant Professor

• Director, ASD Clinic at UAB Civitan-Sparks Clinics • Training Director, UAB LEND • Research and teaching interests: cognitive and behavioral phenotypes of children and adults with ASD, ASD screening and interdisciplinary diagnosis and treatment outcomes

Dr. Laura Stoppelbein, Associate Professor

• Research interests: stress and coping among children, adolescents and families; stress and anxiety among ASD-diagnosed children


MEET Shanden Fifer Shanden Fifer, a student at Indian Springs School in Birmingham, learned about Dr. Kana’s work and was motivated to embark on a fundraising project to autism research. We asked him a few questions about his experience and his passion for autism research at UAB.

How did you learn about Dr. Kana’s Autism Research Lab? My initial connection with Dr. Kana and his research was when my grandmother responded to an autism research study advertised in The UAB Reporter. My brother has autism and participated in Dr. Kana’s study.

Why did you choose to raise funds and awareness for Dr. Kana’s Autism Research Lab? As an eighth grader at Highlands School, I completed a yearlong capstone project. My primary focus was on autism awareness. I decided to interview 10 autism researchers to try to learn more, and Dr. Kana was one of them. Through my research, I also learned that autism research is not funded as much as some other diseases, so I wanted to help. In my final report, I indicated that my objectives were to continue to raise community awareness about autism and to conduct a two-year fundraiser to help support some facet of autism research. • Year One - Donated $1,190 to the Autism Society of Alabama. I also presented my comprehensive report at Highlands School and I developed a web page and flier that were made available to the community. • Year Two - Raised $1,135 to support Dr. Rajesh Kana, Autism Research Lab, UAB Department of Psychology. I also presented an autism presentation to the Irondale City Council, and they made a very generous contribution of blue light bulbs to light up the community for National Autism Awareness Month.

What do you hope will come of his research? I have been acquainted with Dr. Kana for more than seven years. He is very passionate about his work. Each time I see him, he is excited about an autism research project that is in the works. I am convinced that one day he or someone else in the autism research field will solve the puzzle about autism. A breakthrough will come… a breakthrough that will help my brother and many others. 10 PSYCHOLOGY UPDATE // FALL 2016

Dr. Kana and his graduate students have collected a large database of about 150 children and adults. In two studies that he and his team have published, they used a computer algorithm to analyze the data. “We apply our findings to a technique called machine learning,” he says. “We taught the computer certain algorithms to see features in a data set, and the computer then classified participants into groups based on key attributes, such as brain connectivity patterns or cortical thickness patterns. We found that the computer could classify data from participants with autism from that of typical controls with about 95-96% accuracy,” he says. The question is, what are the impacts of these findings? One key long-term benefit is early diagnosis. Currently, an autism diagnosis is based on behavior, and those behaviors may not become evident until a child is age two or older. The earlier a child can be diagnosed, the better the outcome of intervention efforts since a young brain is extremely plastic and more receptive to therapy. “In 15-30 years we could be close to a clinical diagnosis during the first six months of a child’s life; and what we are trying to do is to investigate whether we can provide a biological index to help with this,” Kana says. “We already know that clinicians and educators can use their intervention and instruction to address these connectivity problems,” he says. “For example, reading comprehension can be a challenge for many people with ASD. They can read the words very quickly, but they may not understand the meaning of the passage they just completed. In one of our recent studies, we brought participants from across the country to UAB to participate in our MRI scans. Then they went back home to participate in an intense training program called Visualizing and Verbalizing for Language Comprehension and Thinking, which includes 200 hours of face-to-face intervention on reading comprehension. For example, here in Birmingham, participants work with the Lindamood Bell Learning Processes Center to complete the program. After those 200 hours of training, they come back and we scan them again, and we can see changes in the brain in terms of activity and connectivity after the second scan.”


Dr. Kana with his students. Front row, from left: Carla Ammons, Abbey Herringshaw, Haley Bednarz, Melissa Thye, Emma Sartin, Thomas DeRamus. Mary-Elizabeth Winslett, Niharika Loomba, Victoria Seghatol-Eslami, Rebecca Donnelly

BUILDING THE TEAM Kana’s lab also has close collaboration with Auburn University MRI center. This is facilitated by a statewide collaborative initiative called the Alabama Advanced Imaging Consortium (AAIC) that connects Auburn and UAB, and other major research centers across the state. Co-directed by Dr. Thomas S. Denney, Jr., professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Auburn University, and Dr. Adrienne Lahti, the Patrick H. Linton Professor in the UAB Department of Psychiatry, the consortium provides project management and support among scientists and enables them to share equipment. Dr. Kana has access to the Auburn MRI Research Center and its Siemens 7T MRI machine and Siemens Verio Open-Bore 3T scanner; Auburn scientists in turn have access to UAB’s Siemens Prisma 3T MRI scanner. “That is a very important partnership for us,” he says. “We can reach out to the larger neuroimaging community and ask deeper and broader research questions as expertise is always available at one center or another.” Dr. Kana also has several Ph.D. students and three undergraduate neuroscience majors in his lab. “We have a lot of interest from students in what we’re doing,” he says. “We’re the only active lab at UAB doing neuroimaging research for autism spectrum disorders.” He also notes that a number of his recent graduates have gone on to secure high-level jobs at prestigious labs and institutions. Dr. Lauren Libero was the first author on a paper published last March in the journal “Cortex” that outlined the group’s multimodal approach. She is now a post-doctoral scholar at the University of California-Davis MIND Institute (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders). “That is an excellent center for autism research and Lauren is on the right track for a promising career,” Kana says. Kana has two pending papers on the language intervention studies that will be published as soon as they finish the peerreview process. And he continues to scan the brains of participants to find new ways to understand, diagnose and treat autism. “We have excellent graduate and undergraduate students and hence the lab has been very productive,” he says. “Our work just rolls on. Our long-term goal is to expand the lab to a larger center for autism where research, clinical, and educational activities can be converged. We need all levels of support for achieving this.” FALL 2016 // PSYCHOLOGY UPDATE 11

An Alumni Homecoming Celebration


Homecoming 2016 The thirteenth annual presentation of the UAB Department of Psychology Alumni Awards was held October 19 at the Spencer Honors House followed by a reception at The Wine Loft for the award recipients. The Distinguised Service Alumni Award was presented to Kala Blakely, DNP, CRNP, NP-C who is an Assistant Professor, Doctorate of Nursing Practice in the UAB School of Nursing. (Pictured with award bottom left) The Distingushed Scholar Alumni Award was presented to Nicholaus S. Noles, Ph.D. who is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at the University of Louisville. (Pictured with award bottom right) Reception attendees included the following: June Faulkner, Randy Alban, Tamara Hall, Devika Patel, Saajan Patel, Ethan Gossett, Brandi Swain, Sherman Swain, Taylor Washington, Desiree Mack, Jessica Butler, Kate Wesson Sides, Marcie Foster, J.D., Kaneshia Sims Hudson, Dr. Kristi Guest, Dr. Sarah O’Kelley, Dr. Olivio Clay, Dr. Maria Hopkins, Scott Moran and Christy Moran






Fall 2016 Newsletter  
Fall 2016 Newsletter