Investing In People
New Faculty Members Bring Neuropsychology, Health Psychology Expertise to RFU:
The recruitment of several faculty researchers in the Department of Psychology over the past three years demonstrates RFU’s commitment to investing in continuous growth. These faculty are developing innovative and exciting NIH- and FDA-funded research projects, broadening our knowledge and understanding of subjects including neuropsychology, genetics, PTSD and health psychology.
RFU’s commitment to recruiting top talent has resulted in tremendous growth among the Psychology Department’s research faculty. Since 2020, several new faculty members have come on board and brought with them a diverse range of research interests — from the effects of trauma exposure on health outcomes in 9/11 first responders and how genetics can help predict the severity of PTSD, to the impacts of stigma-related stress on the mental health of sexual and gender minority populations.
Two of the most recent additions to the Psychology faculty are Assistant Professor Rachael Ellison, PhD, and Assistant Professor Nancy C. Jao, PhD. Both spoke with Helix about their current research, what brought them to RFU, and the importance of considering social justice and health disparities as factors in overall health and wellness.
Assistant Professor Rachael Ellison, PhD
Dr. Ellison’s expertise is in neuropsychological research with a social and racial justice focus. She also chairs the Women in Neuropsychology Committee of the Society for Clinical Neuropsychology, Division 40 of the American Psychological Association.
“The increase in faculty hires over the past few years was a really good sign to me that the department is growing and thriving, which also helps student recruitment.”
Helix: What interested you the most about bringing your lab to RFU?
Dr. Ellison: RFU has an exceptionally strong history in clinical neuropsychology with a dedicated neuropsychology track. As a researcher and clinical neuropsychologist, I knew I was coming to a program that has this long history of well-respected training of students in clinical neuropsychology in the Chicagoland area. I also value the department’s commitment to providing funding opportunities in terms of tuition remission and stipends, which I think is exceptionally important for a PhD program. That also helps with recruitment of diverse students from different socioeconomic and other types of backgrounds, and that’s really important to me.
At the institutional level, I was impressed with the university’s support of and respect for psychology as a profession and a discipline. The increase in faculty hires over the past few years was a really good sign to me that the department is growing and thriving, which also helps student recruitment.
Tell us about your research interests.
My background is in clinical neuropsychology, and I also have training in cognitive rehabilitation with patients who have clinical disorders such as ADHD, traumatic brain injury — anything that might disrupt someone’s normal functioning, where they may need to figure out new tools and accommodation strategies to help regain or improve their level of daily functioning. That’s a space I’m really interested in both clinically and in research.
I did my clinical internship at the San Diego VA Health System and trained under Dr. Amy Jak, who is one of the initial developers, along with Drs. Marilyn Huckans and Beth Twamley, on some of these really gold-standard cognitive rehab protocols. The original protocol they developed was for treating schizophrenia, which involves a lot of frontal lobe executive dysfunction so is well-suited for cognitive rehabilitation. The protocol was modified for individuals with a history of traumatic brain injury, and later modified again for individuals with mild neurocognitive disorder (mild cognitive impairment [MCI]).
This most recent iteration of the protocol for older adults with cognitive impairments includes discussions of how stress interferes with attentional capacity, which interferes with our subjective sense of memory functioning. Let’s say I’m running late for a doctor’s appointment, I’m on the phone, quarreling with my spouse, and after the appointment I forgot where I parked my car. Well, I didn’t forget, I just wasn’t paying attention. The stress interfered with my encoding of the information and made it so that functionally, I couldn’t remember — but actually, I never learned the information in the first place, because I wasn’t paying attention. And so this protocol has a lot of psychoeducation about stress as part of that process interfering with attention.
Your current research merges your neuropsychology expertise with your interest in social justice. What projects are you pursuing in your Socially Conscious Lab?
One project I’m really excited about is developing and testing a modification of the cognitive rehabilitation protocol I mentioned, with an integrated intentional focus on the impact of race-related stressors as part of the larger discussion of stress interfering with optimal attention. When the race-related riots were happening in Chicago in 2020, I started thinking, particularly in regard to racial and ethnic minority older adults, “How can we be talking about stress without talking about race-based stress? Is there some type of clinical intervention focused on race and stress that could combine with this cog-rehab protocol for older adults?” And there was!
Some colleagues at a different VA hospital created and successfully ran a process-oriented, race-related stress and coping group that demonstrated positive outcomes for group members. I received approval from the original developers of the cog-rehab protocol to incorporate aspects of this coping process group in order to develop and pilot a cognitive rehabilitation group for racial and ethnic minority older adults that specifically integrated discussions of racism, microaggressions, and stress related to systemic injustice and inequality into the larger discussions related to coping with stress.
The goal now is to pilot this new protocol for racial and ethnic older adults and assess whether this modified protocol results in improved patient outcomes compared to just doing the tried-and-true cog-rehab intervention for older adults. Will we see better subjective and objective cognitive functioning as well as improved mental health symptoms with this protocol? Depending on the outcomes, we could potentially modify this new protocol to focus on stressors related to other stigmatized parts of identity, and apply what we’ve learned to these populations as well.
Assistant Professor Nancy C. Jao, PhD
Dr. Jao’s current research project, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), aims to examine the effect of menthol cigarette use on biomarkers of cardiovascular health. Read more about this research in Dr. Jao’s “Through the Microscope” column.
Helix: In addition to your research on the effects of menthol cigarette usage, what other projects are you interested in pursuing at RFU?
Dr. Jao: I’m in the process of establishing a health-behaviors and tobacco-use research lab. It’s just me for now, but I’m bringing on a research assistant and will have a graduate student starting in the fall. The lab will be largely built upon my tobacco-use research project, but my hope, since I’m a health psychologist by training, is that we’re going to be looking at a variety of health behaviors and conditions, like sleep and chronic pain.
Long-term, in addition to examining other nicotine products like e-cigarettes, I’d also like to branch into other areas of substance use. For example, many people are also using tobacco in conjunction with marijuana, so studying that type of co-use can help us better understand the real-world impacts of substance use.
Do you see potential for collaboration with other research areas at RFU?
Absolutely. Within the Psychology Department, I’ve talked a lot already with both Brian (Feinstein) and Monika (Waszczuk) about collaborating. I’ve talked with Brian in particular because of his focus on substance use in the LGBTQ+ community, which has been largely targeted by the tobacco industry. I’ve also talked with Monika about collaborating on some of our common interests in genetics and cognitive functioning. I see potential for grant collaborations with multiple departments at RFU to explore mechanisms of substance use or public health interventions to advance health equity.
Tobacco use affects so many different areas of health and chronic diseases. I find it interesting to pivot and collaborate with other people. I’ve worked on interdisciplinary teams for most of my career as a health psychologist, so it’s part of my belief that our work shouldn’t be so segregated. That’s why I do translational work, and it’s also one of the things I like about RFU — the focus on interdisciplinary work. I think it informs your own research a lot better that way, and I look forward to developing new projects with others at RFU.
Sara Skoog is a staff writer with the RFU Division of Marketing and Brand Management. In addition to writing for Helix and other university publications, she also produces Pulse, RFU’s monthly e-newsletter.