In this issue: young alumni working in psychology
By Amanda Lang
Driven by Data
In a complex world, using analytics to guide sound decisions
Naira musallam is a palestinian and a citizen of Israel. She attended The Mar Elias Institution, a Catholic school that preached tolerance to its mix of Christian, Muslim, Druze and Jewish students. She possesses both a strong sense of social justice and a deep understanding of life’s complexities. Hence her approach to solving complex global problems, such as conflicts and genocide, by intensely analyzing data collected in real time.
“I want to reach millions of people,” says Naira Musallam. She’s en route to doing so through a startup that builds, analyzes and creates presentations from data patterns not readily apparent to average users.
While at Tel Aviv University, Musallam worked with Palestinians and Israelis suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from political violence. At Teachers College, she rendered an Arabic translation of The Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice, co-edited by Morton Deutsch (Founder) and Peter Coleman (Director) of the College’s International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. She also came to believe in the power of analytic techniques such as inferential statistics and predictive modeling. She subsequently directed R&D for a global consulting firm and taught applied statistics and national security/Middle East affairs at NYU.
Last summer, while becoming the first Arab woman to summit Denali (North America’s highest peak, formerly called Mt. McKinley), Musallam hatched a new venture, Frontier7, with fellow climber Tim Lawton. The goal: to empower organizations “to focus on what matters” by democratizing and scaling up scientific expertise. The product: a platform to build, analyze and create presentations from data patterns not readily apparent to average users. The company’s client list includes The Estée Lauder Companies, which it has helped engage employees in 34 countries, and NYU students working with Syrian refugees.
“Frontier7 scales scientists’ expertise to offer answers for everyone who didn’t have the privilege of gaining Ph.D. skills at TC,” says Musallam. “It’s my little way of giving back!”
Predicting Our Responses to the Unpredictable
Anticipating (and aiding) how people will cope with trauma
You wake up one morning, expecting business as usual, and suffer a major heart attack. Modern medicine stabilizes you physically, but how will you fare psychologically and emotionally?
Understanding and predicting people’s differing responses to the same type of event, argues Isaac Galatzer-Levy, can reveal who is at risk for post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety, and facilitate helping them more quickly.
“The social, the environmental, the biological all combine in different ways for different people,” says Isaac Galatzer-Levy, who is researching how these factors play out in differing human responses to traumatic events.
Such predictions are neither simple nor infallible. “The social, the environmental and the biological combine in different ways for different people,” says Galatzer-Levy, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
Galatzer-Levy’s groundbreaking studies, conducted with his TC mentor, psychologist George Bonanno, have advanced understanding of variation in human stress response. Now he is studying emergency room patients, building a unique NYU database that includes people with different genetic makeups and experiences who have all undergone a singular potential trauma. He combines different methods, including latent growth mixture modeling, which classifies individuals based on their pattern of long-term adaptation to stress rather than according to classic definitions of psychological disorders in the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. He also uses machine learning to identify patterns that indicate risk.
The methodology is complicated, but the goal is simple: “To match individuals to the treatments that are best for them while not disrupting healthy coping.”
The Awakened Psychologist
Becoming a mother leads to a focus on parenting in the moment
Psychologist Shefali Tsabary launched her practice using the best of western concepts and theories. It was only after becoming a parent that Dr. Shefali, as she’s known, began drawing on her background in the eastern practice of mindfulness, realizing that if she could teach people to practice “mindfulness in the moment” it could be game-changing for many family relationships.
Shefali Tsabary believes that the standard psychological emphasis on changing the child has it backward. “All the readings of self-growth lead us to our own evolution, so why not in the parent-child dynamic?”
In parent-child interactions, much of the standard advice focuses on how to change the child, but Dr. Shefali thinks this is backwards. “All the readings of self-growth lead us to our own evolution, so why not in the parent-child dynamic?”
That idea is at the heart of Dr. Shefali’s three books — The Conscious Parent: Transforming Ourselves, Empowering Our Children (Namaste 2011); Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn’t Work and What Will (Namaste 2013); and The Awakened Family: A Revolution in Parenting (Viking 2016), released this past spring. She’s sounded the same call in appearances on “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” in her TED Talks and via online courses.
Dr. Shefali credits TC for giving her the “depth of understanding that opened me up to so many modalities, which allowed me the creativity to find my own approach.” She says her private practice has kept her grounded.
“For the most part, parents have the same concerns,” she says. “Everyone is concerned about their children having a positive self-worth.”
Quantifying Racism’s Unique Harm
Documenting the damage from an intergenerational trauma
As a nurse, Alex Pieterse learned “to be with people in their vulnerability.” Fascinated by “race and racism as a construct and the health-related outcomes of that construct,” he came to TC to study with psychologist Robert Carter, who has spent years documenting the health impacts of race and discrimination.
“The unique piece about race is that it’s your experience as part of a larger collective. There is an intergenerational transmission of trauma, which leads to an ongoing sense of invalidation.”
“I knew I would learn from him,” says Pieterse, now Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology at the University of Albany School of Education, “but I did not anticipate how invested he would be in my learning and growth.”
Aided by Carter, Pieterse has realized that “the unique piece about race is that it’s your experience as part of a larger collective. There is an intergenerational transmission of trauma, which leads to an ongoing sense of invalidation.”
Pieterse has developed and validated an inventory to assess anti-racism awareness and behavior among students in counseling and counseling psychology programs. He showed that white students and students of color responded differently to a multicultural counseling course because they viewed racial group membership differently. Stu-dents of color were far likelier to have had negative racial experiences, to see themselves as representing their racial group and to feel unsafe in taking the course.
Pieterse believes the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and other black men at police hands have renewed the national conversation about racism. Yet the grim headlines continue, and the discourse on race is far from universal. “I have three young boys of my own,” he says. “If my work contributes to better opportunities for them, it will be worth it.”
Taking Motherhood Seriously
Telling “the biggest story never told”
Ask most passersby the phases of life, and you’ll get the usual suspects: childhood, adolescence, adulthood. But matrescence? Not so much.
That, says Aurélie Athan (Ph.D. ’10), is because the transition to motherhood — and its accompanying biological, psychological, social, cultural and spiritual complexities — is “the biggest story never told in academia.”
“Mothers are the beginning of life and the cornerstone of all psychology,” says Athan, Lecturer in Counseling & Clinical Psychology and Director of TC’s Maternal Psychology Laboratory. “Scratch psychology and you hit a mother. But she’s invisible in terms of understanding her subjective experience — the person we seem least curious about. What’s that about?”
“The act of parenting changes you. In a world of competition, parenting sometimes teaches us collaboration. In a world of violence, we know our kids respond better to understanding. In a world of distraction, parenthood demands our presence.”
Athan has helped put matrescence — a term coined by the late medical anthropologist Dana Raphael — front and center in the larger discourse. She helped create TC’s new curriculum in Reproductive & Maternal Well-being, with courses ranging from her own “Mother Matrix: Developmental and Clinical Implications” to “Special Topics: Working with LGBTWQ Couples and Families,” taught by Gregory
Payton. She sees TC as an ideal standard-bearer in a policy area undergoing long-awaited changes such as greater attention to family leave and increased awareness of perinatal mood disorders. (A federal panel recently recommended screening pregnant women and new mothers for depression, and TC is offering the first known graduate level course in perinatal mental health.)
“The act of parenting changes you,” prompting behaviors and values that often counter our culture’s demands, Athan says. “In a world of competition, parenting sometimes teaches us collaboration. In a world of violence, we know our kids respond better to understanding. In a world of distraction, parenthood demands our presence.”
While grateful for increased attention to mothers in crisis, she believes the conversation about motherhood must expand to include more than crisis and dysfunction.
“Women are not of interest until they’re going mad. If I say postpartum, you say ‘depression.’ We don’t want to only reinforce negative narratives. Our work is to understand the whole developmental life span, so we can get to women before they are struggling. Can we care for mothers throughout the process?”
— Ellen Livingston
Bridging the Mind-Body Duality
A philosophy major becomes a neuropsychological researcher
As an undergraduate, James F. Sumowski majored in both philosophy and psychology. He was sufficiently intrigued by modern philosophy’s “mind-body problem” — the relationship between the body and the presumed immaterial mind or soul — to further pursue psychology, and eventually neuropsychology.
A TC course"made clear that brain structure and function represents the solution to the mind-body problem" and provided an erstwhile philosophy major with "a unique perspective in studying neurologic disorders" that he is now using to help patients with MS.
Interested in children’s cognition and learning, Sumowski enrolled in the School Psychology program at Teachers College, led by Stephen Peverly. A neuropsychological assessment course with David M. Erlanger “made clear that brain structure and function represents the solution to the mind-body problem.” While at TC, Sumowski, seeking more focused neuropsychological training, completed a clinical neuroscience research fellowship on multiple sclerosis (MS).
Now Associate Professor of Neurology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City (as well as a TC adjunct faculty member), Sumowski, with a five-year R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, is investigating cognitive decline in people with MS. He is seeking modifiable lifestyle factors to protect against decline.
“TC’s School Psychology program gave me a strong foundation in cognitive psychology and psychological assessment and a unique perspective in studying neurologic disorders,” he says. “TC prepared me extremely well for a career dedicated to clinical practice and research within neuropsychology.”
Published Monday, Jul 11, 2016