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magazine home > archives > fall 2003 > features

Thanks to an abundance of federal grant money, the U of M's Department of Psychology is enjoying the sweet taste of success.

Brain Candy
by Benjamin Potter

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 of
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," Graesser says.

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.

Up in smoke

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 problem."

Memphis City Schools have welcomed the study with open arms. Every middle school and high school in the city has actively participated.

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 to quitting."

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 adolescents.

Robinson says she appreciates help, whether it is internal or external.

"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.

Translating success

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 issues.

"Languages don't translate perfectly," he says. "You can't just rely on the meaning of the word in your primary language."

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 multimillion-dollar deals.

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 world.

"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 past!"

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."

Driving ambition

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," Dwyer says.

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.

Textbook example

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 of success.

"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 audience."

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
intended audiences.

"Our ultimate goal is to change the way textbooks are written," McNamara says.

Better textbooks and better students - it's a win-win proposition.

Thinking ahead

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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