Accredited by the American Psychological Association
Assistant Professor of Psychology
Many environmental insults and genetic risks increase a child’s risk for involvement in the criminal justice system, cognitive deficits, and development of mental health disorders. Nonetheless, individuals exposed to various risks often exhibit positive outcomes, a process known as resilience. Understanding the process of resilience holds promise for improving the prevention of juvenile delinquency and treatment of mental health conditions. My research program focuses on clarifying the fundamental cognitive and neurobiological mechanisms of resilience and using this knowledge to improve prevention and treatment.
I am the principal investigator on a cross-sectional study funded through the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, a private foundation in Texas. The study is gathering information on mental health symptoms and diagnoses, physical health, social cognition, executive abilities, and social functioning in children of incarcerated fathers. Parental incarceration is linked to a number of risk factors and places children at extremely high risk for future justice system involvement. Additionally, parental incarceration may be a significant contributor to mental and physical health disparities in children of minority backgrounds. Very little information exists on protective factors that may improve outcomes for these children. Gathering information on a variety of cognitive, personality, and psychosocial factors will provide hypotheses on potential resilience mechanisms that can be tested in future studies.
Another project involves two longitudinal investigations funded through the U.S. Department of Justice. The first investigation focuses on the impact of personality, social cognition, and executive functioning on treatment outcomes in a group of adolescent offenders participating in a peer mentoring program. We are particularly interested in youth exhibiting gains in prosocial behavior (i.e., desistance from delinquency and positive educational and vocational attainment) and those factors that differentiate these youth from youth who demonstrate fewer prosocial gains. The second study extends our initial follow-up period and examines the role of the mentorship relationship in promoting positive change for these youth. Adolescents involved in the juvenile justice system are at risk for a variety of physical and mental health conditions; nonetheless, little research has systematically examined resilience in adolescent offenders. Future research can use information gathered in these initial studies to design and test personalized interventions for these youth.
Finally, we are in the data analysis phase of a multi-year National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) funded investigation examining neurobehavioral outcomes in adolescents sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI). An important aim of this project is to examine psychosocial and neurobiological correlates of resilient outcomes in these individuals. This is one of the first studies to directly evaluate the relationship between brain structures and variables associated with resilience in a head injured population. Preliminary analyses indicate relationships between resilience promoting variables and white matter integrity following injury. Individuals sustaining a head injury are reportedly at high risk for justice system involvement but few studies have examined this issue using cognitive and brain imaging data or when using a cohort with a documented history of TBI. We are currently in the planning phases of a grant submission to determine the relationship between traumatic brain injuries in justice system involvement.
Children of prisoners, adolescent offenders, and persons sustaining a traumatic brain injury are vulnerable to a variety of negative outcomes. Yet, these individuals often demonstrate resilience. Using a collaborative, translational approach to investigate resilience across populations and through a variety of experimental strategies is foundational to my research. This approach holds promise for unlocking the fundamental mechanisms of this process and thus to neuroplasticity. Understanding these key processes will lead to novel prevention and treatment strategies for youth at risk for justice system involvement, cognitive deficits, and mental health conditions.