Alumni Spotlight on… Melissa Petkovsek

Q: Can you tell us about your current position?

A: Currently, I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg, Missouri. It is a mid-sized state university with a long history and a fantastic mascot (Mo the Mule). The CJ department is one of the three largest on campus, and we have about 650 undergraduate majors and about 60 graduates, pursuing their master’s of criminal justice. I also serve as Graduate Coordinator for our graduate program and sit on the University Graduate Council. Overall, like most professors, I teach, conduct original research, and serve the academic community both on campus and within my discipline.

Q: What are your current research projects and interests?

A: Generally my research investigates biosocial correlates of behavior and crime, which covers things like genetics, intelligence, and childhood development. I am particularly interested in the relationship between intelligence and behaviors like self-control. More recently, I have diverged slightly, and I’ve been working on studies examining citizen attitudes of body-worn cameras on police officers and a study examining myths of sexual assault.

Q: Why did you choose to pursue Criminal Justice?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by human behavior: where does it come from, why are people different, and how to change it. Because of this interest, I started college thinking I would pursue neuroscience. That major was not available when I started at Wooster, and so I majored in psychology and took every neuroscience course offered. I always intended to study deviant behavior and the law, so I focused on legal issues within psychology, and my IS focused on racial stereotyping and emotion in which the participant made legal judgments, like a juror would. After that, criminology was a natural extension of my interests, and in fact, I have found my background in psychology and interest in the brain a significant advantage in my field. Criminal justice and criminology are derivations of sociology, a discipline not traditionally accepting of biological or psychological influences on behavior, since sociology tends to examine behavior via group or culture instead of through the individual. While in my doctoral program, I found myself equipped with a very different knowledge base and set of methodological skills from many of my fellow students, and this unique viewpoint served me well.

Q: How has your training in Psychology prepared you to study Criminal Justice?

A: I already addressed this question (at least a little) in the question above, so here I will share how The College of Wooster prepared me for my training in criminology. I will never have enough positive things to say about my training at Wooster, particularly from the psychology department, which is where I took most of my classes. There is nothing more important than learning how to chase curiosity – to be a critical and analytical thinker – and that is the most valuable skill I gained from Wooster. In addition, the psychology department taught me excellent research methods and helped me hone my writing skills, both of which got me into the doctoral program and contributed to my career today. To me, these are the most crucial skills anyone can learn in college, no matter the field of study. I would put my education at Wooster up against that of many graduate programs, even.

Q: What advice do you have for current Wooster students?

A: My advice will probably come off as weirdly mixed: you don’t need to have a plan, but, you also need to take things seriously right now. This is the ‘real world’, this very moment, and you are in a sort of buffer zone – you are still partially protected from mistakes, but you are also in the best place to set up your future success. Every five or ten-year plan falls off the rails at some point (mine did!), so don’t worry too much about that. Instead, focus on gathering the skills and experiences which will set you apart during the next phase of your life, whether that be achieving excellence in academics (of course) or stepping outside your box to try theatre, travel, or music for the first time. If I could go back in time to my first year at Wooster I would tell myself to ask for help more often, to take more risks despite contrary advice from others, and believe in myself.

Melissa’s IS was titled “Aggressive Affect and Racial Stereotyping of Latino Suspects: Video Games as a Mood Modifier to Investigate Perceptions of Criminality” and was supervised by Dr. Amber Garcia.

Thank you, Dr. Petkovsek!

Alumni Spotlight on… Irene Kan

Q: Can you tell us about your current position?

A: I’m currently an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Villanova University, and I am also the Director of the Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory Lab.

Q: What are your current research projects and interests?

A: Research in my lab focuses on the examination of the cognitive architecture and neural bases of human memory and executive functions.  We’re particularly interested in the interplay between different long-term memory systems, namely semantic memory (i.e., our memory for general world knowledge, such as knowing that apples grow on trees) and episodic memory (i.e., our memory for personally experienced events, such as remembering that I went apple picking last September).  We take a multi-disciplinary approach in our investigation: by combining behavioral, neuropsychological, and electrophysiological methods, we hope to gain a better understanding of how such memories are created, stored, and retrieved.

Q: Why did you pursue a career in academia?

A: Academia offers the perfect combination of research and teaching for me.  I have always loved basic science research.  Even as an undergraduate, I found myself really enjoying thinking about research and asking the “what if” questions.  My first opportunity to mentor students came when I was a graduate student.  Ever since then, I have really appreciated working with enthusiastic and smart students who often offer a fresh perspective, a new way to think about the research.

Q: What tips do you have for students conducting research or working on IS?

A: Try to find a topic that excites you and your advisor and take ownership of your project.  Keep in mind that a year is a very short time in the context of research projects, so try not to do too much in one study.  Take a step back and think about how your study will help advance the field.  Research almost always takes longer than you expect but staying organized will definitely help.

Q: What should psychology students do to prepare for graduate study?

A: In addition to a strong academic record, having independent research experience is key.  This is true for all PhD programs, even for clinically-oriented programs.  Be sure to highlight your independent research experience (such as your I.S. project) in your application material.  It is becoming more and more common for college graduates to work full-time as research assistants prior to applying to PhD programs.  Terminal Master’s programs also present great opportunities to gain additional research experience and to help further refine your interests.

As you consider PhD programs, remember that it is a big commitment.  Try to gather as much information as you can — talk to your professors and current graduate students in the programs that interest you.  If you are interested in clinically-oriented programs, also try to get exposure to different clinical settings.  The hands-on experience will help showcase your commitment to the field and also help you decide whether this is something you can see yourself in this career.

Q: How did Wooster help prepare you for your current career?

A: My I.S. project was my first foray into the world of memory research.  Dr. Gillund was my advisor, and my work with him really piqued my interest in memory research.  I knew my passion lies in memory research when I find myself thinking about data I’ve collected and papers I’ve read all the time and when real-life situations and problems often prompt me to think about how those situations could be understood in terms of Cognitive theories I’ve learned.  I have Wooster to thank for sparking and nurturing that interest!

Thank you, Dr. Kan!

Alumni Spotlight on… Dave McNew

Q: Can you tell us a bit about the program you are attending?

A: The Psy.D. (Doctor of Psychology) Clinical Psychology program at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania is a highly involved program of study and practice, ranked among the top 5 of its kind in the country. From the start, we receive personal mentoring (from faculty and an upper year student) as well as hands-on opportunities to develop clinical and cognitive/personality assessment experience. In the meantime, students are encouraged to collaborate with faculty on research projects and attend regional conventions and workshops.

As the years go on, the balance between classroom courses and practical experiences shifts increasingly toward the latter. Short and structured clinical interview training paves the way for rotation through several internal clinics during years 2 and 3. Years 3 and 4 incorporate external practicum placements (for class credit), as well as the development and defense of the doctoral thesis. Year 5 is the internship, which can take place in virtually any city in the country. Along the way, there are ample opportunities to work with faculty who espouse a variety of theoretical orientations, then apply these new techniques in the training clinics. The ability to explore and integrate prepares us to be flexible in tackling wider ranges of cases in both assessment and therapeutic contexts.

As opposed to Ph.D. programs where prospective students apply to individual openings beneath specific faculty (and are essentially “locked in” with him or her for the duration of the program), Psy.D. programs such as IUP’s operate such that students become part of a cohort. This tends to foster more collaboration than competition, as funding and research opportunities are made accessible to all, not only to those faculty/student pairs with a grant. The professors in our program are very vocal in encouraging us to try collaborating with various research faculty research partners: the cultivation of our research/clinical skill is more important that dedication to a single mentor who may be the best fit in terms of personality or intellectual interest.

Q: How has your time at Wooster helped you achieve your goals?

A: Wooster set the stage in ways I could never have fully planned or appreciated in the moment. I did not apply directly to the Psy.D. program at IUP; rather, the experiences at friendships at Wooster set the stage for several years of further study, travel, and personal development. I volunteered with Americorps in NYC, taught abroad in Bangkok, earned an MA in general Psychology at Hunter College CUNY, and did another stint of teaching through the JET Programme in Tokyo. Wooster, as well as the opportunities it afforded me after, led me to be here now. Wooster was the first place where I was actively encouraged to explore more provocative, engaging, and challenging material- and the breadth of it! That matters. Psychopathology grows from and is treated through so many intersecting contexts, personal and social. Wooster brought me to the place where I could live through a number of them firsthand before initiating my formal training. It was the place where the diversity of the student body, the material of study, and the expertise, engagement, and personal attention of the faculty gelled to make something more than the sum of its parts. I’d do it all over in a heartbeat.

Q: How did you decide which programs to apply to?

A: When applying to different Clinical Psychology programs, I juggled a number of factors. I had research experience from senior I.S. at Wooster and from my master’s program, so that led me to weigh Ph.D. programs. The theoretical orientations espoused by the faculty mattered as well: I wanted exposure to the prevailing approaches to treatment as well as the option to integrate other modalities as I saw fit. Finances will of course be a consideration, and that is a major tradeoff between the Psy.D/Ph.D. split. IUP is lucky enough to offer partial remission and assistantships to its students, though that is admittedly a rarity. I switched horses midstream and fell in love with the Psy.D. model during the interview process, actually: the freedom to explore and collaborate (a la Wooster) compared to the (relative) competition and rigidity of Ph.D. programs swayed me. Are the students happy with what they do, where they’re going? Are they accepted at high rates to internships of their choice? If yes, that’s another good sign. Of course, the research vs. practice angle is another important consideration, but remember there is flexibility both ways. When I began to imagine myself as a college counselor at an international university, a senior consultant for peer mental health counselors in the JET Programme in Japan, or working for Doctors Without Borders, I was ready to go the practice-oriented Psy.D. route.

Q: What advice do you have for current Wooster students?

A: Get to know your professors. Do research with them. Ask questions in class, and hang around after to ask more questions. Be a TA. I did not grasp the unique position COW students have with such a low student to faculty ratio, plus the sheer number of research opportunities. I was swapping stories with my girlfriend about applying to grad schools; she had attended a massive school with auditorium-style classes. Reaching out for a recommendation after graduation was the first personal interaction she had with most of her profs, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee the most compelling letters. Instrumental benefits aside, the personal mentorship alongside I.S. is not something to be taken lightly. (And when they drop book recommendations in class, jump all over it. Your wiser self will thank you.)

Also, get to know people different from yourself. The degree of diversity among students is one of COW’s greatest assets. What you will learn will surprise you. In the same vein, get out of your comfort zone and try your hand at as many different student groups as possible: go backpacking in the Smokies, try singing acapella, take up an intramural sport. There is no telling where these things can lead.

Finally, don’t be afraid to take a gap year or two.

Q: What drew you to Clinical Psychology?

A: The idea of sitting in a room and having a series of conversations that lead to another person’s healing sounded like something akin to magic, or about as close as we’re going to get to it. Reading a book (given away by Dr. Bill Scott upon his retirement from the Wooster Psychology department) where Carl Roger’s talks about “being a midwife to new personalities” stirred my imagination further: I wanted to do that for other people. Sitting up all night hashing out problems with friends was my bread and butter; why not learn to do it more effectively, maybe even make a living out of it? Here was a chance to weave together seemingly disparate threads of interest: mindfulness meditation discovered while living in Thailand is a component of many therapies. Journaling about one’s problems can become “expressive writing”, and has stress-reducing effects. Jogging—or any physical movement—is a natural mood enhancer, and is prescribed under the name “behavioral activation”. From the problems to their solutions, all of it is intellectually engaging- a prerequisite for anything I would consider doing as my life’s work.

Dave’s IS was titled “Fighting the Inevitable: The Effects of Religious Orientation and Mortality Salience on Self-Esteem and Anxiety” and was advised by Susan Clayton.

Thank you, Dave!

Alumni Spotlight on… Brandon Schechter

Q: What program did you attend for your doctorate?

A: I received my degree from Columbia University’s Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology.

Q: How did you choose this program and field?

A: Truth be told, the program I graduated from sortuv-kinda found me. I had originally began at Boston University as a Masters student. While there I took several different classes and ended up doing research for a professor who was very big in the field of anxiety and related disorders. But, I sort of migrated more towards another professor who taught Forensic Psychology. Before long I was beginning my doctorate with the forensic professor, and after a year I began thinking maybe I should be in a place with a little more forensic background if that’s what I’m interested. I met who would become my advisor at Columbia during a research conference and the following school year she took me on as one of her advisees!

Q: Could you describe your journey to Graduate School?

A: My journey to graduate school is best summarized by Jerry Garcia’s line, “oh, what a long strange trip it has been.” I became very interested in psychology while attending Wooster. Once I graduated, I was set on being a child psychologist. But, I knew I wanted to take one year off to work with kids to gain some experience. I also thought this would help booster my chances of getting into a program, considering my first few semesters at Wooster weren’t exactly “stellar.” So I signed up for an AmeriCorp program called City Year, packed my bags after graduation and moved to New Hampshire to begin teaching, mentoring and tutoring at-risk middle schoolers. Let’s just say after that year, I had decided, ‘I don’t want to be a child psychologist!’ I did, however, still want to study psychology. I applied to Masters programs, began attending Boston University, and the rest is history…

Q: What is involved in your post-doctoral position?

A: My postdoctoral fellowship is at New York State Psychiatric Institute in conjunction with Columbia University Medical Center and New York Presbyterian hospital. My work is two-fold: Preventative and reactive. The former is mobilized through research- mostly NIMH/NIH and state funded grants. The latter is conducted via small teams of doctors (Psychologists, Psychiatrists/Neurologists, Mental Health Specialists, etc.) who assess and treat individuals presenting with a variety of mental illnesses.

Q: What was your favorite Wooster experience?

A: Gosh, favorite Wooster experience…I don’t think there is only one! Here’s the answer that’s approved for all audiences: For a kid that came from Los Angeles, I thoroughly enjoyed my four years at Wooster and I wouldn’t change anything. I loved being able to have dinner over at a professor’s house or go out and have a beer and listen to music (at what was then a place called Seattles) with a few professors.

Q: What advice do you have for current Psychology students?

A: My advice for current psych students is really simple: Use your I.S. as a serious tool to progress your future academic (and even professional) goals. That’s of course if you want to continue in Psychology. If you want to go on into the field, you are sitting on huge advantage- a gold mine- that if taken seriously you will likely stand out in what is an extremely competitive market. You’ll have research skills that most applicants only learn after undergrad through an internship experience. But of course, everyone is different and sometimes the journey- the ups and downs, the “oopsie”- is necessary to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve!

Brandon’s IS was titled “An Analysis of Factors Used to Increase the Utilization of Mental Health Care-Services” and was advised by Dr. Gary Gillund.

Thank you, Brandon!

Alumni Spotlight on… Amanda Koehn

Q: Where are you currently employed?

A: I work at the Cleveland Jewish News.

Q: What do you do in a typical day?

A: In a typical day I write stories and interview people about issues and news of interest to the Cleveland Jewish community. We have a weekly paper and website that I write and copy edit for, as well a few magazines.

Q: What drew you to study Journalism?

A: I got into journalism after doing research in social psychology after graduating from Wooster. I noticed I always liked writing about the science best and thought I was good at making complicated information understandable and interesting. I also liked the idea of having a job where I could ask a lot of questions and hold people in power accountable.

Q: How has your training in Psychology helped your Journalism career?

A: In writing about psychological research, I became cognizant of how important it is to phrase everything accurately and how often only the perfect words will suffice to describe some complex phenomenon. I’ve taken that with me in journalism and try hard to not “write around” complicated parts of a story, even if it requires me asking more questions and taking more time.

Q: What are your goals for the future?

A: In the future, I want to continue doing journalism, potentially more in radio/podcasting and magazine writing. I also care about environmental issues and think good environmental journalism is needed, so I would like to do more there too.

Q: What advice do you have for current Wooster students?

A: If you are interested in someone’s work or a field in general, don’t be afraid to cold email anyone (but of course do your research and be thoughtful).

Amanda’s IS was titled “Climate Change in the Media: Collective Guilt and Behavioral Effects of News Reports and Environmental Identity” and was advised by Dr. Amber Garcia.

Thank you, Amanda!

Alumni Spotlight on… Masha Berman

Q:  Can you tell us a bit about the program you are attending?

A: I am attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) for my Doctorate in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D). This program stresses clinical competency more than research. I have just finished two semesters and have really enjoyed it. I love the fact that my program has a collegial atmosphere and has provided me the opportunity to work with patients in my first year.

Q: How has your time at Wooster helped you achieve your goals?

A: Wooster has helped me to establish good study habits and to think more critically. In high school, I did not have to work very hard to get good grades. The first semester at Wooster proved that I would need to work hard if I wanted to do well in my academics. It also helped me to think more critically. As opposed to regurgitating information, it forced me to synthesize information that I was taught.

Q: How did you decide which programs to apply to?

A: When looking for schools, I looked at the full disclosure data (data on incoming class, internship data, presentations and publications, graduation outcome, and licensure rate) and the programs they offered. IUP had high rankings for all of these things. One of the major reasons I picked IUP was because it was ranked #5 in the country. More importantly, I really loved visiting the campus and seeing the students interacting with each other and the professors. It was a very friendly, warm, and collegial environment. I also really liked the fact that I would get to work with patients the first year, which was not true for other schools.

Q: What advice do you have for current Wooster students?

A: I would advise Wooster students to take advantage of all the opportunities that COW provides. Talk to teachers, do your own research on a topic you are interested in, try new extracurricular activities, challenge yourself, etc.

Q: What drew you to Clinical Psychology?

A: Up until my 3rd year, I wanted to be a dentist. I was majoring in psychology because I was always very curious about how humans think, act, and feel. I switched my career trajectory to something that I would enjoy reading and learning about. If you are going into graduate school, make sure that you love your topic of choice because you will be a lifelong learner.

Masha’s IS was titled “Just keep Moving: Examining the Relationship Between the Self-Determination Theory and Transtheoretical Model in Relation to Exercise Behavior” and was advised by Dr. Claudia Thompson.

Thank you, Masha!

Summer Spotlight on… Harley Layman

Q: What program are you working with this summer?

A: I am working with Dr. DeMond Grant’s Laboratory of Emotion and Psychophysiology at Oklahoma State University.

Q: How did you find out about this research experience?

A: I found out about this research experience online while searching for possible professor mentors for graduate school in the future.

Q: What are you researching this summer?

A: This summer we are researching various physiological and emotional reactions (brain waves, eye movements, heart rate, saliva samples, etc.) while before, during, and after performing several tasks and comparing controls to those who have been identified as having some sort of anxiety disorder (most commonly GAD). I also am using data from a graduate student’s thesis to create my own research question regarding anxiety and using literature to help answer my question (which is TBD).

Q: What are the typical daily duties for your program?

A: Typical daily duties include recruiting participants, performing EEG’s on participants, collecting saliva samples, and collecting data from these assessments. I will also be working on my own independent research project and putting together a literature review to help answer my research question with the assistance of a graduate student in the lab.

Q: What is your favorite experience thus far this summer?

A: My favorite experience thus far is looking at the EEG results and seeing how different movements or thoughts can trigger different reactions that are visible on the screen.

Q: How did APEX help make this experience possible?

A: APEX helped to make this experience possible by providing me with an APEX fellowship which has helped to cover my expenses while out of state. The APEX fellowship has also been beneficial with providing me with a mentor who I can go to for assistance and share my experiences with. The assignments created by APEX are interesting in the way that they allow you to reflect on your experiences while completing your fellowship.

Thank you for your time, Harley!

Eleven students present at Midwestern Psychological Association

Congratulations to the 11 students who presented research at the Midwestern Psychological Association meeting last week! We took a group photo with legendary memory researcher Dr. Elizabeth Loftus. Great job Eli Millette, Gina Williamson, Nancy Valverde, Greta Minor, Amanda Wells, Jean Pham, Jason Solinsky, Zach Mastrich, Judy Basting, Marie Schroder, and Robert Tudisco.