| With more than 4,100 colleges
and universities scattered across the United States, a top-10
ranking in anything can be pretty hard to come by. That's what
makes the exceptional University of Memphis Department of Psychology
- No. 6 in federal grants received with $9.38 million - all
the more impressive. The ranking is from 2000, the most recent
year for which the National Science Foundation has final figures.
Admittedly, the number itself is good for little more than
bragging rights. The projects behind the number, however,
are richly improving the quality of life in Memphis and
The research that University psychology faculty conduct is
bona fide science - meticulous, thorough, cutting-edge and
also surprisingly practical, says Dr. Arthur Graesser, director
the Center for Applied Psychological Research and co-director
of the Institute for Intelligent Systems at the U of M. From
convicting DUI offenders to getting kids to quit smoking,
the faculty's impact reaches into many facets of the community.
"All research is inspired by science questions, but
we always try to hone in on the needs of the community,"
What also makes the department competitive, he adds, is its
bent for interdisciplinary collaborations.
"We're not just psychology any more," Graesser
says. "We're psychology and medicine, and computer science,
and physics, and education, and engineering. We're ands. That's
what has helped us position ourselves so well."
Three major areas of emphasis in the psychology department
are addiction research, learning and communication technologies,
and child and family studies. Other emphases include statistics,
psychotherapy and sleep disorders. The department is also
home to one of Tennessee's established Centers of Excellence:
the Center for Applied Psychological Research. The CAPR has
evolved quickly and spawned two new centers: the Center for
Community Health and the Institute for Intelligent Systems.
Both centers are internationally visible. Faculty in these
centers have conducted joint research with colleagues from
esteemed institutions such as MIT, Pittsburgh, Illinois, Carnegie
Mellon and Stanford.
Read on for a sampling of the types of research in which
U of M psychology faculty are engaged.
Dr. Leslie Robinson, associate professor of psychology, takes
her smoking cessation research personally. That's because
she was a smoker herself until she was diagnosed with early-onset
emphysema at the age of 30.
"At the time, I complained how unlucky I was, but a
friend pointed out how fortunate I actually was," Robinson
says. "I had an opportunity to change early. It was a
great catalyst for me."
With funding from the National Institutes of Health, Robinson
and her colleagues are currently studying the smoking habits
of Memphis adolescents. This study is unique because the participants
are primarily black and because of the program's longevity
- 10 years and counting. It has yielded much-needed information
about what prompts young people to smoke.
Although the percentage of black adults who smoke is roughly
equivalent to that of whites, blacks are less likely to quit
and more likely to get tobacco-related diseases. Scientists
do not know exactly why, but Robinson says one thing is for
certain: Smoking is unhealthy regardless of ethnicity.
"One out of three smokers dies from tobacco-related
diseases," she says. "This is a major public health
Memphis City Schools have welcomed the study with open arms.
Every middle school and high school in the city has actively
Another major project Robinson led was a $2.2 million prevention
study funded by the Partnership for Women's and Children's
Health. This project evaluated one of the first prevention
programs specifically designed for an ethnically diverse set
of students. After the program was implemented in local schools,
Robinson and her colleagues noted a change in knowledge and
attitudes, and more importantly, a drop in smoking rates.
A cessation program funded by the National Institutes of
Health was not as successful outright, but it led to some
promising discoveries. In this study, students caught smoking
on school grounds were given a choice by principals. They
could elect to obtain standardized information, or they could
opt to work one-on-one with health educators.
Sadly, the program did not lead to a decrease in smoking
rates, but Robinson says it did produce an unexpected upside.
"Everyone had always assumed that you can take a model
designed for adults and plop it onto adolescents," she
says. "But we found that adolescents have their own developmental
and behavioral needs, and their own motivations and barriers
Based on that finding, Robinson secured a follow-up grant
from NIH that begins this fall. This time, teens will tell
psychology faculty themselves why they started smoking, and
if and why they want to quit. These interviews could serve
as the backbone for a newer, better cessation program for
Robinson says she appreciates help, whether it is internal
"I'm not alone," she says. "I go to a lot
of conventions and work with the best and brightest in the
country. I believe this is what I should do. It's the right
thing to do."
That's a breath of fresh air for would-be smokers everywhere.
For Dr. Phillip Wolff, the message is never lost in translation.
That's because the assistant professor of psychology has delved
deep into the subtleties of second-language learning. Wolff
has grants under review at the National Institute of Mental
Health and the National Science Foundation to study these
"Languages don't translate perfectly," he says.
"You can't just rely on the meaning of the word in your
Consider this scenario: Wolff and his colleagues at the U
of M's Cognitive and Linguistic Systems Lab showed English
speakers a picture of a man pulling another man on a skateboard
across a line. Most subjects said the man "caused"
the other man to cross the line. But when Wolff showed the
same picture to German and Russian speakers, most said the
man "let" or "enabled" the other man to
cross the line.
There are hundreds of such quirks between any two given languages.
Identifying and addressing those nuances can help foreign
language teachers perform their jobs more effectively.
This research has applications in the international business
world, too, where even slight misunderstandings could sink
What U of M faculty are actually doing with these experiments
is creating maps - not of cities or states, but of the mind
itself. Doing so could mean tremendous changes in the computing
"I like to think that we're working out some of the
math to link the brain and the mind," Wolff says. "The
work done now could create a search engine for discovering
causal relationships in large bodies of text. Imagine a program
that could, in effect, predict the future and explain the
Wolff's research melds the fields of psychology, computer
science, linguistics and even philosophy.
"These concepts have a rich philosophical foundation,"
Wolff says. "We often adapt ideas from philosophy and
look at them using experimentation and computer simulation."
This research isn't being cloistered away in dusty, moldering
journals, either. NASA officials have shown an interest in
how U of M research could improve communication during construction
of the international space station. And some of Wolff's research
on multitasking, funded by the Office of Naval Research, could
help the Navy place people in the work environment for which
they are best suited.
Wolff contends that the U of M's forward-thinking faculty
is a key component to the department's strength.
"The very strongest schools have creative thinkers,"
he says. "Our group is very daring, and we're doing relevant,
exciting work that's attracting attention across the nation."
All U of M faculty love to secure federal funds and do the
scientific research that matters most to them. Charlie McConnell,
project director of traffic safety for industrial-organizational
and applied (IOA) psychology, might appreciate it more than
most. His job is grant funded.
"If I don't get the grant, I don't work," he says.
McConnell and psychology professor Dr. Bill Dwyer have gotten
the grants. And while McConnell enjoys his employment at the
U of M, it is Tennessee's drivers who truly are reaping the
benefits of the team's work.
Dwyer is the principal investigator for two projects: Driving
Under the Influence Information Tracking System (D.U.I.T.S.)
and Traffic Crash Analysis.
The mission of D.U.I.T.S. is to increase the conviction rates
for multiple DUI offenders. The $1 million study is funded
by the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office.
Ever wonder why so many of those DUI repeat offenders are
still out on the road? It's largely because in court, a driver
can claim that the offense was his first - even if it's his
fourth or fifth. There wasn't an adequate, up-to-date database
available for judges to prove otherwise.
The U of M found a way to fill that need. A pilot program
for the 13th Judicial District in middle Tennessee, D.U.I.T.S.
tracks drivers charged with DUI and collects conviction-rate
data. The data will help identify and address so-called "weak
links" in the system, such as prosecutors who deal on
too many cases.
"Organizations have problems, too," McConnell says.
"We like to think we can identify those problems and
find a solution. There can be disease in organizations, just
like in people."
The Traffic Crash Analysis project could improve an important
organization in Tennessee - the state government. Getting
a crash report into the statewide database used to be so inefficient
that two years could pass before a report was entered into
the system and available for analysis. But Dwyer and his colleagues
created a streamlined database that is leading to marked improvement.
"We're still behind," Dwyer says, "but we're
on the cusp of getting the delay from two years to two weeks."
Another area that U of M faculty are concerned with is Tennessee's
vehicle crash fatality rate, which is higher than the national
average. Twisting, turning rural roads are a major factor
in that statistic.
Incidentally, excessive speeders are not a major cause of
automobile crashes. Neither are sleepy drivers, who comprise
just 5 percent of fatal crashes. Alcohol is involved in a
full 40 percent of fatalities related to car wrecks.
The D.U.I.T.S. and Traffic Crash Analysis programs continue
to produce data, which U of M faculty will in turn study.
Additionally, post doctoral student Chris Dula is trying to
secure a grant so faculty can have access to an on-campus
driving simulator. Once in place, the simulator will help
them compile and analyze data on sleepy drivers who have imbibed
small amounts of alcohol.
But whatever the reason for traffic accidents, the IOA faculty
know they can make a difference.
"When you think about more than 176,000 crashes in the
state every year, and thousands of drivers who are disabled
or killed every year, highway safety is a noble goal,"
Gaining knowledge and sharing it with law enforcement agencies
and Tennessee drivers could lower those troubling statistics.
That's a best-case scenario certainly worth fighting for.
Dr. Danielle McNamara and her U of M colleagues do their
research by the book. They also do their research on books
- textbooks, to be specific.
McNamara, professor of psychology, is the principal investigator
for the Self-Explanatory Reading Training (SERT), Interactive
Strategy Training for Active Reading and Thinking (iSTART)
and Coh-Metrix projects. These projects could some day alter
the way textbooks are written and read.
"There are two ways to improve learning comprehension,"
McNamara says. "You can improve how readers read a text,
or you can improve the text itself."
The SERT and iSTART projects focus on reading comprehension.
The $3.2 million grant was issued by the National Science
Foundation's Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI).
SERT helps students to become more involved readers. Students
in this program aren't merely reading the text, they're explaining
the text aloud as well. SERT already has a proven track record
"It works," McNamara says. "It has been shown
to improve both reading comprehension and exam scores. Our
concern now is being able to get the training out to a large
iSTART is an automated version of SERT that adapts to an
individual's reading ability. As students use iSTART, the
program will assign them to appropriate training based on
skills they exhibit. With so many crowded elementary and secondary
school classrooms, iSTART could quickly become a serious asset
to teachers everywhere.
While these two programs address student achievement, the
U of M's Coh-Metrix study (computational cohesion and coherence
metrics) looks at the textbooks themselves. The $1.4 million
grant is funded by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).
For the past 100 years, schools have selected textbooks based
on increasingly outdated, arcane methods. Coh-Metrix is about
to change all of that.
"The current way to select textbooks is based primarily
on sentence and word length," McNamara says. "But
there are deeper ways to determine how cohesive it is."
In fact, there are more than 200 ways to measure cohesiveness
and detect so-called "conceptual gaps" in a textbook,
and McNamara's research is determining which of these measures
can best predict a text's difficulty. The book's content is
entered into Coh-Metrix and evaluated carefully on a number
of levels. The elaborate program has a simple outcome - to
find the right textbook for each grade level.
McNamara says she hopes that companies that publish textbooks
will see Coh-Metrix as an opportunity to make their products
better suited for their
"Our ultimate goal is to change the way textbooks are
written," McNamara says.
Better textbooks and better students - it's a win-win proposition.
The U of M's Department of Psychology is by no means limited
to the aforementioned faculty. More than 30 professors are
on campus training students and heading research projects.
In fact, so much is happening in the Psychology Building
that the building can't even contain all of the faculty, staff
and students. Some, like the Center for Community Health's
Dr. Robert Klesges, journey up Poplar Avenue to Clark Tower
to find office space.
No one knows what the future holds, but as long as U of M
faculty keep setting high standards and meeting them, the
Department of Psychology will continue to be a grand presence
on campus and in the community.
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