Meet @RowanCHASELab: Post-Transition Interview with Megan Brown

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Megan was the CHASE Lab research coordinator from 2018-2020. She is now a first-year Ph.D. student in Rowan’s Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program and a graduate research assistant with the CHASE Lab. She was interviewed by second-year Ph.D. student Laura Travers.

Rowan CHASE Lab: Let’s start off with a broad question. When did you first know you wanted to focus on the field of psychology?

MB: Well, I was actually a biology major my first year of my undergraduate career here at Rowan. I really just didn’t feel passionate about it, and it wasn’t until I took a course in the essentials of psychology that I started to become interested in the field. Then, after I took my research methods course, I realized that I wanted to pursue the psychology field through research. I decided to switch to a B.S. in psychological science and minor in neuroscience. This training led me to the position of research coordinator in the CHASE Lab. Being a research coordinator really solidified my desire to continue to pursue research in psychology and apply to the Ph.D. Clinical Psychology program at Rowan.

Rowan CHASE Lab: What made you choose to work with CHASE lab and to have Dr. Arigo as your mentor?

MB: I chose to apply to the CHASE lab because my research interests (looking at relations between mental and physical health) aligned extremely well to the research being done in this lab. Having firsthand experience while being a part of the CHASE group also helped me realize how well I worked with everyone in the lab, and how much I enjoyed and valued Dr. Arigo’s mentoring style.

Rowan CHASE Lab: How has the transition from CHASE Lab research coordinator to first-year Ph.D. student been so far?

MB: Well due to COVID-19, all of our courses are currently online, so the first week was spent getting adjusted to a new style of learning. However, being a research coordinator helped hone my time management skills, which I am definitely using now. I’m still getting used to my new role as a Ph.D. student and graduate research assistant rather than a coordinator, but I’m sure I will get into the hang of things as the semester progresses.

Rowan CHASE Lab: Could you tell us about your research experience so far? What do you think has helped you be a good researcher?

MB: One positive aspect of being a research coordinator for the past two years is that I’ve been exposed to multiple research projects, which used different designs and implementation strategies. I have also been able to develop informal clinical skills, contribute to writing papers, and collaborate with colleagues and peers. And as I mentioned, I really do think that developing time management skills has helped me be a good researcher. Another skill that has helped is having experience communicating with people in various positions and roles both within and outside of the lab (e.g., participants, physicians, faculty, etc.).

Rowan CHASE Lab: What are your current research interests? Have they changed now that you have entered the Ph.D. program?

MB: Since starting with the CHASE Lab two years ago, my research interests have changed a bit. When I began, I was much more focused on mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression. Then I found interest in health behaviors (e.g., physical activity engagement), and my research interests now include the etiology and treatment of stress and anxiety. I also have interests in the impact of social influences and interactions on body image and health behaviors, as well as the implementation of mindfulness-based interventions and integrated health care. Currently, I am looking at the relation between social physique anxiety and physical activity patterns among midlife women at risk for cardiovascular disease.

Rowan CHASE Lab: What are some goals you have for yourself for your first year as a Ph.D. student with the CHASE lab?

MB: My goals for this year are in the domain of professional development, such as increasing networking and becoming more comfortable with public speaking. I also would like to continue contributing to team projects and papers, and I look forward to working with Dr. Arigo on developing my analytical and research skills.

K Halfway: Reflections on the First Half of an NIH K23 Award

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By Dr. Dani Arigo (K23 HL136657)

In January of 2018, I received the wonderful (and unexpected) news that my K23 application was in line for funding through the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at NIH. The award was funded in March 2018 (see me with the notice of award while crying, right), to support my research and continued training in intensive assessment methods and physical activity promotion for midlife women (ages 40-60). Since then, I’ve transitioned a new institution, moved my home twice, shared in the growth of the CHASE Lab, and attempted to adapt our work to the realities of a global pandemic. I’m now halfway through the 5-year K23 award, and I want to share some reflections on the first stages of this process.

Planning and Tracking

Five years sounds like a long time, but I knew from the start that time could easily fly by. And the goal of a K23 award is to set you up well for future grant funding; the process of developing a large-scale grant proposal, submitting, receiving reviews, and responding to critiques can take years in itself, so it’s recommended that you start working on this next step in Year 3. (See here for some timeline descriptions.) So you really only have a little more than two years to put everything in place for the next stage, including executing major components of the training plan and collecting preliminary data. My sense is that the second half of a K seems much shorter than the first half; the first half is focused mostly on the work proposed in the award, whereas the second half includes doing the work you planned for this award and working toward the next one. (Plus any other duties you have as a faculty member, which increase over time.)

Knowing all this from the start, I wanted to avoid looking back at any point and realizing that I hadn’t maximized the time. So from the first day of the award, I’ve planned for and tracked my progress in several ways. First, I keep track of ongoing projects/papers via whiteboard and paper notebooks; I use these to plan out the next steps for each project and then transfer the plans to Google Docs that are shared with the CHASE Lab, so that the team knows what steps they can take in each domain. (My newest weapon: The LOT Planner.)

At the start of each workday, I also set tasks and goals for myself and share them via Twitter, using tweets as markers for how long I’ve been on the K. (I’ve done this since K23 Day 1, and today is K23 Day 913 – the halfway point!) This not only helps me stay accountable, but it also allows me to (1) give others insight into the day-to-day operations of a K award, and (2) get a daily reminder of where I am in the timeline, so that I don’t lose track.

Second, I track my individual progress and productivity with a Google Doc. (Also started this on K23 Day 1.) I have a section for each week where I update work done on each aspect of the K award, as well as work done in non-K domains, such as service to my department or research projects not funded by the award. Together, these include training activities, recruitment and enrollment stats for ongoing data collection, status/progress on each paper and grant application, meeting attendance, and behind-the-scenes committee work (institutional and professional). I also highlight to-do items and transfer them to my planning docs.

I update this Google Doc daily or as progress is made in each area. I sometimes post progress updates on Twitter to indicate whether I accomplished my goals each day, but I’m less consistent about that than I am about the morning agenda posts. This amount of progress monitoring probably seems like a lot, but it has advantages. It provides regular input for planning, keeps me from getting lost in the sea of specific work tasks, and makes drafting other progress reports fairly painless. For example, I send my mentors quarterly updates on progress toward each training/research goal of the K23, and I’m required to submit periodic reappointment applications until I’m tenured at my institution. And, like all NIH investigators, I submit yearly reports to my institute for their review. When it’s time to prepare each of these, I scroll back through my Google Doc and pull out the information I need. Much easier than having to track down and organize all that information when I’m writing reports! This is probably the most useful set of procedures I adopted when the K23 was funded, and I anticipate continuing them long after it’s over.

Assessing Progress

The first 2.5 years did go by quickly, but I was able to stay mostly on track, despite the disruption of re-establishing my research program at a new institution. Here is what’s happened during that time:

  • K23 Aim/Study 1 of 2 completed (10-day EMA study)
  • Development for K23 Aim/Study 2 underway (testing a new tech tool)
  • 18 publications accepted, 7 under review/revision (2 published papers were large-scale scoping reviews of topics related to my training plan, and 3 were preliminary work for Study 1)
  • (Also several rejections and several manuscripts in preparation)
  • 3 grant applications in progress as PI
  • 5 grant applications submitted as PI or co-I (no hits yet, sadly, but I’m proud of these and they’ve helped me clarify ideas)
  • 24 conference presentations
  • 3 Ph.D. students, 6 undergraduates, and 1 postdoc joined CHASE Lab at my current institution (10 publications are co-authored with these team members)
  • Service to my primary professional organization (Society of Behavioral Medicine) as chair of a special interest group and council member

I’ve also developed many exciting and productive new collaborations with wonderful colleagues, including psychologists, public health professionals, computer scientists, game designers, and physicians. I can’t wait to see where we take these.

I’m proud of these accomplishments and I’m grateful that the K23 has made many of them possible. Academia provides a constant string of rejections and critiques, and it’s so easy to get lost in what’s not happening while ignoring what is. If I’m being reflective, though, it is important to acknowledge what hasn’t gone particularly well, and what I need to keep working on. Some of this has to do with focus. If my research program were a tree, it would have many branches off of the main trunk. This isn’t uncommon, as projects lead to new questions and angles of approach, especially if the truck is a fairly broad area. Sometimes these branches lead to fruitful (and fundable) lines of inquiry. But it can be easy to let attention get pulled from the trunk to the branches, which then seem more disconnected, and not all branches are equally worthwhile. So it’s a balancing act.

And of course, I’d be happier with my progress and more confident in my future prospects if I’d had any success with new grant applications along the way. To be fair, though, I haven’t submitted that many applications – another balancing act, between executing the plans for current funding and chasing more. Proposals take time and energy to craft that then has to come from other areas. But it seems pretty clear that very successful researchers put themselves out there a lot. So perhaps the balance needs to shift just a bit more toward applying. I submitted two foundation grants this year (1 as PI, one as co-I) and I’m waiting for funding decisions; a few other proposals are in progress, so I think we’re moving in the right direction.

A huge and unexpected change this year is the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with months of protest against unspeakable police brutality in the U.S. CHASE Lab wasn’t immune to its effects; some of our internal resources were frozen, which has changed our plans a bit. But we’re so fortunate that when the pandemic hit, we were in a good place to wind down face-to-face data collection and move into data analysis and writing. So it was a productive summer, even though several papers are still in progress, and we’ve been intentional in our efforts to increase attention to diversity. And we took the opportunity to re-assess some of our participants from 2019 to determine whether what we observed pre-pandemic still holds up. But for the last few months, I’ve wondered whether we could (or should) be doing more to understand the potentially life-changing effect that these events have had on our populations of interest.

To be sure, many other researchers have taken up this charge, with better resources, ideas, and solutions than we may be able to muster. And rushing to put something else together might not end up being better than what we have done, for us or (more importantly) for our participants. So again, it’s an ongoing effort to find the right balance, and our team continually communicates ideas and feedback about whether we’ve found it. This academic year, we’re also looking forward to hiring our first work study students as research assistants, who will bring fresh ideas to the discussion.

So, We’re Halfway!

Looking back, the past 2.5 years have gone really well, and there is still a lot interesting work to do with smart and creative people. Yet, despite all of my emphasis on careful planning, tracking, and evaluation of progress, perhaps the overarching theme of the first half of the K23 has been the importance of maintaining flexibility. Even before the pandemic and civil unrest, there were many unexpected challenges, including:

  • Budget confusion that led to hiring/effort changes
  • Purchasing restrictions that almost prevented the acquisition of necessary equipment
  • Slow participant recruitment
  • Shifts in the technology landscape that required meaningful modifications to development plans
  • Limited time for additional professional development opportunities

My primary K23 mentor loves to say “it will all work out” – no matter what the situation is or how concerned I am about it – which can be more frustrating than comforting, at times. So I hate to admit it, but he’s been right so far, and I hope that I’m starting to adopt that perspective for myself.

In-Depth on Our Latest Paper: Who Benefits Most from Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Training (MBSR)?

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If you’ve read our previous posts, you know that our recent work has focused on social comparison, physical activity, and women’s health. Ultimately, this work is intended to help us design treatment programs that will promote physical activity and improve other physical and emotional health outcomes. But we’re also interested in how factors such as gender and pre-treatment health experiences can help us target existing, effective treatments to the right people. Our most recent publication, in Journal of Health Psychology, focuses on this topic; specifically, identifying pre-treatment characteristics that predict outcomes after the popular Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program.

What is MBSR?

Mindfulness, or non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, is positively associated with a number of health outcomes. MBSR is an 8-week program that teaches participants about the influence of mindfulness on stress and health, guides mindfulness meditation practice, and facilitates group discussion. The program also includes a full day of meditation (seven hours) following the sixth week of the program. Participants are expected to continue meditation outside of class, as well as to practice mindfulness during daily activities (such as eating and communication with others). Given the overlapping research interests of the Mindfulness, Stress & Health Lab and CHASE Lab, such as identifying ways to improve mind-body health, we teamed up on this paper with the goal of better understanding the characteristics that predict who benefits most from mindfulness training.

What did we do?

We conducted a secondary analysis on data from an existing project. Our goal was to examine whether baseline anxiety, sleep quality, or gender could predict change in two different outcomes, from before to after participating in MBSR. The first outcome was emotion regulation, which is how an individual controls (or regulates) their emotions. Two emotion regulation techniques we examined were emotion suppression (a way to manage your feelings by essentially muting them) and cognitive reappraisal (changing your thinking to change how you feel). The second outcome was physical symptoms of stress, such as headaches and fatigue. For this paper, we chose to include only the people who completed both the pre- and post-treatment questionnaires (203 participants).

What did we find?

We found improvements in both of our outcomes from pre- to post-treatment among both men and women, with men showing greater improvement in emotion suppression than women. In other words, when it came to emotion suppression, men benefited the most from the MBSR program by showing a bigger drop in suppressing their emotions from the beginning to the end of the program. In addition, people who started the program with higher levels of anxiety and worse sleep quality actually saw the most improvement in physical symptoms of stress. Those who started with higher anxiety also showed greater improvements in cognitive reappraisal. Overall, it appeared that men, individuals with high anxiety, and those with poor sleep quality ended up benefiting the most from the MBSR program.

What does this tell us?

Our findings suggest that evaluating baseline characteristics may be an important first step in identifying who can benefit the most from mindfulness training. This information may help clinicians refer people to MBSR who have a high likelihood of benefiting from it, and steer other people toward different treatments. 

What was it like to work on this paper?

Dr. Greeson and I started developing the idea for this paper back in 2018, when I graduated from Rowan. I took a health psychology class with Dr. Greeson as an undergraduate and loved the topics we learned, especially the introduction to mindfulness. During a meeting with Dr. Greeson we discussed my interest in research and mindfulness, and that is where the idea of this paper began Then, once I began working for Dr. Arigo in the CHASE Lab in 2018, we were able to identify a direction we could take the paper that overlapped with all of our interests, so Drs. Arigo, Greeson and I decided to work together as co-authors.

Writing this paper as first-author was intimidating, but also a huge learning experience for me. I could not have asked for better mentors to help guide me through this process, and both Drs. Arigo and Greeson have taught me so much when it comes to developing and taking the lead on a paper. I also appreciated the collaborations we had with the co-authors on this brief report (at Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh), and how everyone was able to contribute information based on their own expertise. Overall, we saw this paper evolve from an idea, to a conference presentation, and now to a brief report in the Journal of Health Psychology, which is an exciting accomplishment.

 – Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Research Coordinator

This project is a great example of cooperation between research groups to learn from an existing dataset. It’s not easy to manage a project with so many contributors, and Megan did a great job with guidance from us. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with and learn from the Mindfulness Lab and I hope that this is the start of a long-term partnership.

– Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

As a professor, researcher, and mentor, you always want to support bright, eager students who show interest and initiative. Megan was one of the top students in my Health Psychology class her senior year, and I knew she had the aptitude for graduate school. Working on this paper together, in partnership with Dr. Arigo, Megan was able to grow as a scholar, to develop her scientific writing, and to integrate feedback from collaborators across Psychology and Medicine. Perfect preparation for a PhD program!*

– Dr. Jeff Greeson, Mindfulness Lab Director

Next Steps

For this paper, we focused on whether pre-treatment characteristics predict outcomes after a standard MBSR program. While there is plenty of evidence that mindfulness training can reduce stress and enhance mental health, far less is known about the impact of mindfulness training on objective measures of physical health (like obesity, blood pressure, or blood sugar), or, whether mindfulness training benefits diverse groups of people. Future research is needed to not only identify factors that best predict outcomes of mindfulness training, but to also directly compare how helpful mindfulness programs are for different types of people, facing different types of stressors. New, adapted Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) aim to go beyond the general MBSR program and target specific symptoms or conditions like depression, chronic pain, and heart disease. This raises an important, ongoing question about “What works best, for whom, and why?” By studying predictors of outcomes – in addition to outcomes per se – we can better tailor existing mindfulness programs, increase access, and improve outcomes for as broad a group of people as possible.

*And Megan is joining the CHASE Lab as a clinical psychology Ph.D. student this fall! Like what we do? See here for more information about doctoral training with us.

@RowanCHASELab’s First Virtual Conference

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On May 14th, UConn’s Center for mHealth and Social Media hosted a virtual version of it’s annual conference. This year’s theme was “Building an Evidence Base for Commercially Available Technology,” a topic that our group has some experience with (see here for an example). Sessions took place on the Center’s site and on Zoom, and several presenters incorporated interactive elements using Slido (polls, Q&A). Instead of poster sessions – and instead of making traditionally formatted posters available electronically – presenters were asked to create 1-minute video summaries of their studies.

Our group had three “posters” at the conference this year. Check out what our presenters had to say about the experience of conceptualizing and creating a short video – and watch their videos at the links below:

  • Kristen: Overall, I really enjoyed pushing myself to be creative in this process. I was excited to see that the video posters were intended to have language more suited for a lay audience. This language, coupled with the visually-driven format could be a great opportunity for dissemination to a wider audience and the general public. Looking back on my process creating the video poster, my goal was to take advantage of the expanded format options. I had seen some YouTube videos titled “Draw My Life” in which individuals took out a white board and markers and drew scenes illustrating key moments in their life. I really enjoyed the simplicity of this video format and wondered if anyone had ever created a “Draw My Research” video before. Thinking that it might be worth a try, I drew some preliminary sketches that were paired with a script and asked for feedback from my labmates. Once I knew that the sketches made sense with the accompanying lines of script, I practiced drawing the designs on a whiteboard while recording video. This allowed me to ensure that the designs could be drawn sufficiently and sped up to fit into the 1-minute timeframe. Next, I had to create a makeshift tripod using items in my house (asI don’t have video recording equipment) and record the video. Lastly, I downloaded the video so that I could fast-forward and trim, overlay audio, and use additional software to add captions. Though this was not my first experience with video-editing software, there was much I had to learn along the way and I enjoyed doing it. Arigo, D., Pasko, K.P., Brown, M.M., Vendetta, E., Travers, L., Gupta, A.A., Ainsworth, M.C., Symons Downs, D., & Smyth, J.M. (2020, May). Daily Social Influences on Physical Activity among Midlife Women with CVD Risk: An Ecological Momentary Assessment Study. Poster presented at the 2020 annual meeting of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media (virtual). 

In addition to Megan, Kristen, and Cole, Laura and Dr. Dani Arigo also attended the conference. Here are some of our reflections on the experience as a whole:

  • Laura: Attending a conference virtually was definitely interesting. I enjoyed being able to interact with polls and questions throughout the presentations, and having the ability to pose questions during the Q&As at the end. I had been worried it was going to sound robotic during the Q&A, especially if questions were just answered from a screen, so the fact that they included a designated speaker/host was wonderful! The biggest difficulty I had was sitting for such a long period of time. I had to make sure I got up and walked around between presenters, either around the house or a quick break outside (I didn’t realize how much I appreciated walking to different rooms during an in-person conference until now!) Overall it was a great experience and I believe they did a fantastic job!
  • Dani: This conference was a model for what all virtual professional meetings should be – extremely well-run by people who understand technology and how to use it to engage attendees remotely. I loved the interactions using Slido and the integration of Zoom interactive sessions when appropriate. I also attended all three post-conference workshops (Research Designs for Testing Commercially Available Technology, Introduction to Social Network Analysis, and How To Write an Effective Seed Grant) and benefitted from each one in a different way. Although there are advantages to face-to-face meetings that virtual formats can’t yet replicate, it’s friendly to the wallet AND the environment to avoid flying and driving to meet in person. I would definitely attend a virtual conference again, if it were organized like this. 
  • Cole: I enjoyed the virtual conference format. Although it was less interactive than a traditional in-person conference, I found the Slido Q&A and polling functions very useful. It also helped to have a Slack chat open with other CHASE lab members, so we could stay connected during the presentations. The ability to screenshot slides definitely beats hurried notetaking, too!
  • Megan: A virtual conference was new for me (as I’m sure it was for many people attending), so I wasn’t sure what to expect. While I think having been able to interact with people and presenters in person would have allowed for more opportunities to ask questions, I did enjoy this experience! I liked that I was able to tune in for so many great talks, which I know probably would have been hard to do in person. Even though the poster videos were brief, I thought it was neat seeing how other presenters used this opportunity to disseminate their research in creative ways!   
  • Kristen: I was surprised to enjoy the virtual conference as much as I did! Of course there were a few times that technology did not want to cooperate, and I did not get to experience one of my favorite parts of research conferences (speaking to others who are interested in similar research topics and generating new ideas), though the poll feature and general interactive nature of the conference still allowed for an exciting dialogue. Specifically, I enjoyed learning more recent evidence on the active ingredients in behavior change within apps. 

Did you attend UConn or another virtual conference this year? Let us know your thoughts!

CHASE Lab Plays Work From Home Bingo

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We’ve now been working from home for almost eight weeks, and although our tips to stay sane and productive have worked well, we’re still itching for some new ways to connect with each other and infuse some new energy into our work. A few weeks ago, lab member Bernard Kwiatek (junior Psychology major) suggested that we all play Work From Home Bingo, using a bingo card he made. 

We selected a date (Tuesday, 4/28) and everyone kept track on their bingo card. At our lab meeting that week (Thursday, 4/30), we discussed the activity as a group. Although Dr. Arigo was the only one to get BINGO, we had a lot of fun using a new way to track and share our work experiences with each other. Check out what our members had to say about it:

  • Megan: I really enjoyed playing this game, and it made me laugh realizing how many of the boxes I was able to relate to. I think it’s especially important right now to have lighthearted activities like this to do during the day, which may help take your mind off of other serious matters.  
  • Emily: It was fun reading through the board and I’d get so excited when I could mark off a square. It was a nice little break to take during work hours. 
  • Kristen: I tried to check off the board at the end of the day so that I didn’t influence my chances, and unfortunately, I did not get BINGO. But, it was still a fun activity to do during lab hours that made me smile, which goes a long way during these difficult times. 
  • Cole: This was the only time in my professional career that I had wished for technical difficulties to happen (so I could mark it on my bingo card). Sadly, my laptop performed perfectly that day. Despite not winning, it was an entertaining break from my usual work routine.
  • Laura: It was the perfect distraction throughout the day and served as a nice reminder to not take things so seriously. 
  • Bernard: Going through the day and trying to hit each spot was a hectic but in a good way. It’s interesting seeing what spots I usually hit normally than if I could potentially fill the entire board.

Want to play along, or make your own bingo board? Visit Bingo Baker!

#HealthyFinalsWeek Tips

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Finals week is stressful, and it may be even more stressful this semester as we take finals remotely. Below are some tips from Rowan CHASE Lab to help you stay healthy, manage stress, and finish the semester strong.

DO these things:

  • Make a plan for studying so that you can prioritize effectively. Take into consideration that some finals will be earlier in the week than others, and some will require you to devote more time.
  • Take breaks! Overworking is the best way to get burnt out, so plan a 15- minute break after every hour. At the end of each day, plan a slightly longer break as a reward for hard work. Breaks can include walks outside, coloring, crocheting, or any other activity that lets your brain rest for a few minutes. 
  • Get extra sleep. Research shows that memories are consolidated and integrated during sleep, and fewer hours lead to worse academic performance. 
  • Try to recall what you have learned as you study – real-world examples, how to apply concepts in new situations, etc. This will be more useful than attempting to memorize all of the course material. Your professors care more about learning! 
  • Create your own study guides. Research shows that generating your own study instead of using your professors’ allows you to engage with the material more. 
  • Quiz yourself. Prompting yourself to recall the information in a manner similar to the exam will you help you prepare. 
  • Work with others virtually. Seek out students in your classes who are motivated and doing well – check class discussion boards and/or post a thread about virtual study sessions (Google Hangouts, Facetime, etc.). Quiz each other, support each other, pool resources. If you can explain challenging material effectively to someone who is not in your class, you can be confident that you know it well. Everyone wins.
  • Drink LOTS of water. Staying hydrated will reduce discomfort and distraction. (One of our team members goes without coffee for the whole week! He swears that he feels just as energized with water.) 
  • Plan meals ahead of time. Stock your room/apartment with healthy food, bring meals and snacks with you when you study, or have a plan for where to access healthy options near your study location. Without a plan, it’s easy to get stuck with junk food options that won’t give you the energy you need to power through and perform well. 
  • Spread out your unpacking over the week. If you moved off campus, unpacking offers a productive break from studying.
  • Take off from work. If you are still working during this time, and can afford to schedule a week off from your job, this will free you up to focus on studying and reduce your stress level. 
  • Plan a way to reward yourself for your hard work. An evening in video chatting with friends, ordering a big item you’ve been waiting to splurge on, diving into that new show you’ve been waiting to start…

DON’T do these things:

  • Start a new series on Netflix this week. You will get addicted and not study. Use a new series as a reward at the end of the week!
  • Skip meals, or skip exercise, to study. Research shows that giving yourself a short break and engaging with social support and/or physical activity is best for performance. But make sure you’re doing it virtually, or from the safety of your home! 
  • Forget about professors’ office hours. Make a list of questions for review, and set up an online WebEx meeting with your professor. 
  • Overdo it on coffee and/or energy drinks. Energy drinks in particular will disrupt your sleep and result in worse performance. 
  • Study in your bed. WAY too tempting to lie down, which makes it easy to fall asleep and lose valuable study time. Make your bed and study sitting up (if you have to study in bed) to limit the temptation. (This will also make it easier to fall asleep in bed at night.) 
  • Plan on studying during breaks between exams. Something always comes up, and you may simply be too exhausted to study during short breaks. 
  • Neglect your personal hygiene. Taking care of yourself is just as important as acing your exams! 
  • Ask your professors the day before what is on the final – they will not be happy, and they’re not likely to be able to get back to you in time.
  • Leave studying for the night before a final. You’ll perform better if you review a little bit each day for a few days before. 
  • Drink alcohol the night before a final. Enough said. 

Share your tips with us at @RowanCHASELab on Twitter!

What We’re Working On, Remotely

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Like most academic research groups, we’re working from home these days to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We’re really lucky to be able to continue much of our work from home, and this transition has come with some unique opportunities and challenges. In this post, we share some of what we’re working on lately, and how we’re coping with being away from campus.

Ongoing Research and Response to COVID-19

Our primary ongoing research study, Project WHADE, requires that we meet with participants face-to-face (to take measurements, calibrate physical activity monitors, and get the monitors back when participation is over). For women who were actively participating when Rowan’s campus closed, we were able to set up a mail-in system to get the monitor back, and we conducted exit interviews via phone. But we had to pause recruitment and enrollment of new participants, as the patterns we’re studying are likely to look really different now than they did before March. We hope to start up again over the summer.

Yet, we see this as a unique opportunity to understand more about our patterns of interest. We think they’ve changed, but we won’t know how much or in what ways unless we re-assess them. We’re in the process of inviting previous participants to enroll in “Part 2,” which re-uses remote survey technology to capture daily experiences. We won’t have activity monitor data, but we’re hoping to learn as much as we can about how COVID-19 precautions have affected our participants’s daily lives. Stay tuned for more about this new venture!

In the meantime, we’re doing tons of behind-the-scenes work: 

  • Searching and summarizing existing literature on topics of interest
  • Managing, coding, and analyzing existing data
  • Preparing virtual presentations for the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media Conference (May 14-15, 2020)
  • Drafting professional articles to describe our recent findings 
  • Doing our best to stay healthy and sane

Remote Teamwork

Rowan uses the WebEx platform for virtual meetings, and we’re using these to stay connected. We still have our weekly lab meeting and regular individual meetings with Dr. Arigo, weekly or as needed. For times when we want some company while working on projects, we’ll set up WebEx meetings, allowing us to virtually work alongside each other.

Slack is another tool that we use a lot. It’s a chat platform that allows for communication between individuals and groups, and you can create “channels” for specific topics. Slack gives us the opportunity to ask each other questions and receive answers quickly, and to create various channels where members can share updates about life and work, as well as anything that might help us all stay motivated and upbeat. 

What We’re Reading

For multiple projects related to health among midlife and older adults, including Project WHADE and several lines of inquiry from RowanSOM’s ORANJ BOWL study, we’re reading about physical activity, weight change, pain experiences, and social support in this population:

How We’re Staying Sane

As clinical health psychology/behavioral medicine professionals (in training), we’re trying to practice what we preach to get us through this difficult time. Our most effective methods so far:

  • Kristen: Working on remote tasks outside when the weather allows, getting in a Facebook Live workout whenever I can, virtual game nights with friends, and spending time with/helping out family while I’m temporarily back in Pennsylvania. 
  • Megan: FaceTiming with friends and family, online workouts (3-5 times a week), teaching myself yoga, and starting a new show on Netflix (Outlander).
  • Bernard: Talking and playing videogames with friends online, trying out new things like baking, and reorganizing my entire Spotify playlist and finding new types of music to enjoy.
  • Dr. Arigo: Running outside 3-4 times per week (and walking other days), virtual yoga classes, spending time with my cats, re-watching every season of The Great British Baking Show, and reading for fun (when I’m up to it). (Dani’s personal reading list: The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson.)
  • Laura: Beginning a morning mindfulness practice, creating a family “Must See” movie list (randomly choosing a title from a jar each week), talking with friends and family either on the phone or FaceTime, getting outside between work tasks.
  • Emily: Working out every morning (even if it’s just a quick, 20-minute workout), going for walks and spending time with my 3-month old, watching new shows at night (recently finished Money Heist and Ozark on Netflix).

Let us know how you’re staying in touch and staying sane these days – we’re always looking for tips!

Meet @RowanCHASELab: Interview with Undergraduate RA Bernard Kwiatek

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Bernard is a junior at Rowan who has worked with the CHASE team since Fall 2019. He was interviewed by postdoctoral fellow Cole Ainsworth.

RowanCHASE Lab: Let’s start off with the basics! Tell us about your undergraduate experience and how you were introduced to psychology research.

BK: Coming into college, I had no idea undergrads could help with research like this. It was only at the end of my second year that my advisor told me that this was a potential opportunity. 

RowanCHASE Lab: What initially got you excited to work in the CHASE lab as a research assistant?

BK: I was initially excited to just experience research. I had no idea what to expect and really wanted to try it out and see if it was something that I would enjoy or not.

RowanCHASE Lab: What are some valuable skills you have learned while working in the CHASE lab?

BK: I’ve learned how to effectively search for and dissect scientific papers in order to cite or learn from it, which was something that took me forever before I started working with a research team. I’m also pretty good at coding data now – I can do it quickly with very few mistakes, which is useful for a lot of other work I might do.

RowanCHASE Lab: What is some advice you would give other students at Rowan interested in pursuing a research assistant position?

BK: Get started as early as possible, even if you don’t think you’ll be qualified. The earlier you start, the more time you have to train and be more effective in future years. Think of it like reserving your spot for the future.

RowanCHASE Lab: Lastly, what are your plans after you graduate and how will working in the CHASE lab support your future endeavors?

BK: I plan to attend graduate school and continue on with research after that. CHASE lab is a big part in helping me reach that goal because it has already provided me with contacts, experience, and advice from co workers on how to look appealing to graduate schools all over.

Close-Up on Our Latest Paper – Social Comparison Features in Physical Activity Apps: Scoping Meta-Review

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In a few of our recent posts, we (re)introduced you to the concept of social comparison and described our efforts to understand how it influences health and health behavior. CHASE lab’s newest paper is an extension of this previous work, focused on the potential to use social comparisons in physical activity interventions. This systematic scoping review of existing review papers is now published in Journal of Medical Internet Research.

A number of research studies show that social comparison can prompt people to be physically active. For example, when we see other people like us being more active than we are, this can motivate us to keep up with or do better than them, and that motivation can lead to activity engagement. We might also be motivated to stay ahead of people who we see as less active than we are. Evidence showing that social comparison can motivate physical activity has led researchers and app developers to include features such as leaderboards and challenges (competitions). These are included to prompt users to make comparisons, as comparisons should lead to increases in activity.

But people who study the effects of social comparisons understand that comparisons are not always motivating:

  • Seeing someone doing better than we are can be discouraging – it shows us that we’re not achieving as much as we could and that we’re being outperformed by others
  • Seeing someone doing worse than we are can show us the worst-case scenario – this can activate anxiety or a sense that effort is pointless

It’s not clear whether satisfaction, anxiety, hope, frustration, or some combination of these experiences is the best immediate consequence of comparison, because any of these experiences could motivate someone to increase their physical activity. And most importantly, the “optimal” consequence of a comparison can differ between people, and within the same person over time. (For more details about these ideas, see Dr. Arigo’s 2018 post for UCL’s Digi-Hub and her 2018 publication with Dr. Jerry Suls in mHealth.) So it’s pretty likely that just giving all users the same physical activity-based social comparison opportunities isn’t going to work equally well for all of them. This means that personalizing the social comparison features of apps might work better than what we’re currently doing.

What Did We Do?

One of our overarching research goals is to determine how best to harness the power of social comparison and other social processes to promote healthy behavior. For this project, which spanned more than a year of work, CHASE Lab teamed up with Dr. Jerry Suls, a longtime colleague and expert in social comparison processes and health. 

Because social comparison is a complicated process, we wanted to understand how apps currently prompt comparison. And because researchers have already published more than 100 reviews (or overviews/summaries) of physical activity app features and related topics, we took a step back to look at what’s already been done. We summarized how other researchers have defined, classified, and attempted to personalize social comparison features of physical activity apps, and compared these to evidence of attempts to engage or personalize other processes (such as goal-setting or feedback).

To do this, we began by developing inclusion criteria. Existing publications were eligible if they:

  1. Were available in English
  2. Were published on or before May 31, 2019
  3. Conducted a systematic or narrative review, or meta-analysis
  4. Reviewed the features of commercially available smartphone apps or included formal intervention programs delivered via smartphone apps 
  5. Used increasing physical activity or reducing sedentary time as a key behavioral outcome. 

We then searched publication databases such as PubMed using specific key terms, and pulled in any publications related to using smartphone apps for physical activity. Our initial search totaled in 3,743 articles. After removing duplicates and reviewing the remaining 1,496 publications, we were left with 26 reviews that met our inclusion criteria. Co-authors Megan Brown and Kristen Pasko then went through each review and extracted specific data points, such as whether the reviews included social comparison as a category, what they used as their definition of social comparison, and which features they classified as prompting comparison processes.

What Was It Like to Work on This Project?

This was my first time being a part of a systematic review project, and this experience has made me so much more appreciative of the work and time that goes into a paper like this. At first it was intimidating knowing we would have to code so many publications, but having a team that encouraged communication and questions made the process much easier. I also found it valuable being a part of the extraction process of the final 26 reviews, where we were able to gather all of this valuable information and answer some very important questions with it. I’m looking forward to seeing how our review contributes to future research aiming to use social comparison in physical activity apps.”

— Megan Brown, CHASE Lab Research Coordinator

“I’m grateful that Dr. Arigo invited me to assist with this project. By and large, when health psychologists have studied social comparison or tested a comparison intervention, there has been little recognition or appreciation of the nuances associated with comparison. It has been treated as a concept that can just be taken off the shelf. This scoping review confirms that impression and leads the way to testing social comparison interventions with more attention to the factors influencing comparison choice and outcomes. The physical activity apps context is really an excellent one to examine these issues. A very rewarding collaboration for me!”

— Dr. Jerry Suls, Northwell Health

This has been one of my passion projects for a long time – we even presented an early version of it at a conference in 2017! It went through several iterations and updates, and it seemed that there always was more to do before we had a final product. The author team did a great job of staying committed to the work and we really benefited from having Dr. Suls’s expertise. He and I have worked together for about 10 years on understanding social comparisons among adults with chronic illness, but social comparison features of apps were new to him. It was fun to be able to introduce him to this new area. The final version is something I’m really proud of. It ties together several lines of our work and t paves the way for our upcoming projects.”

— Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

What Did We Find?

Of the dozens of reviews we found, 26 met our criteria, and 8 of those included social comparison as a process underlying various app features. Across these 8 reviews, researchers used different definitions of social comparison and classified different features as using vs. not using comparison:

  • Definitions: some authors counted only features that allowed comparisons between users, rather than comparisons to experts like fitness instructors (this was called “modeling”); others allowed comparisons with anyone
  • Features: some authors counted only direct exposures to others’ data in a ranked format (leaderboards or challenges), whereas others counted any social networking (where users could share progress in other forms, such as via message boards); some were even more restrictive and counted challenges as “gamification” rather than comparison

Social comparison was described just as often as social networking (i.e., using message boards), but less often than behavioral modeling (i.e., providing examples of behavior engagement to encourage others to engage). And although we found evidence of personalizing features such as goal-setting and feedback, we found no evidence that (the potential for) personalization had been addressed with respect to social comparison features.

What Does This Mean?

Research is inconsistent about what constitutes social comparison in physical activity apps. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the utility or benefit of social comparison processes in these apps, or how to improve these features to make apps more effective. Further, existing work shows that people respond to social comparison differently (from each other and from themselves over time), but we found no evidence that physical activity apps have taken these differences into account. Together, this means that there is a huge opportunity to better understand how social comparison processes can be used to promote physical activity and other healthy behaviors – which is what CHASE Lab will continue to work on!

Close-Up on Our Newest Paper: Accelerometer Cut Point Methods for Midlife Women with Cardiovascular Risk Markers

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Our research team takes a specific interest in women who are between the ages of 40 and 60, a period often called “midlife.” Women in this age range have elevated age-related risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), are beginning menopause, and are experiencing health conditions such as type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol – all of which independently increase CVD risk. Therefore, midlife women have a lot to gain from physical activity, as it can protect against CVD even when other risk factors are present. So health professionals have spent a good bit of effort on promoting physical activity in this group. A focus has been on getting women to meet U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), or activity at an intensity that gets the heart rate up.

If you’re someone who tries to follow public health recommendations for physical activity (or you do research in the area of physical activity), you may be aware that recommendations changed last year. Specifically, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services changed the way it defines MVPA. For several years prior to 2019, guidelines indicated that MVPA should happen in “bouts” (or episodes) sustained for at least 10 minutes at a time, and that adults should get 150 minutes of this kind of activity per week. The most recent report has removed the requirement that MVPA happen in 10-minute bouts, indicating that all MVPA is helpful for accruing health benefits. Although this is good news, as it means that shorter bouts of MVPA now count toward the 150-minute total, it raises important questions about population-level activity engagement. For example, most U.S. adults fail to meet the old guidelines; is that true now that shorter bouts count?

To make matters even more complicated, measurement of physical activity engagement isn’t entirely consistent across research studies. There are several methods for calculating whether activity reaches the threshold to be considered MVPA, and it’s not clear whether these methods give the same answers about how much time midlife women spend in MVPA. In other populations (such as among children and pregnant women), different methods give wildly different answers about how much MVPA participants get – differences of up to 100 minutes.

In our new publication (currently in press at Menopause), we took a closer look at two questions about midlife women’s MVPA:

(1)  How different are estimates of MVPA between considering only 10-minute bouts and considering all minutes?

(2)  How different are estimates of MVPA (bouted and all minutes) between different calculation methods?

What did we do?

We looked at four popular calculation (or “cut point”) methods for MVPA: Freedson et al. (1998), Swartz et al. (2000), Matthews et al. (2008), and Troiano et al. (2008) in two separate studies. The first was an observation-only study conducted by our CHASE team at The University of Scranton (before we moved to Rowan University in 2018), and the second was part of a weight loss clinical trial conducted by our collaborators at Drexel University’s WELL Center. This two-study approach allowed us to replicate our initial findings in a separate sample and confirm that findings were consistent across contexts.

What did we find?

In both studies, we met with midlife women at our research center for brief interviews, to train them in the use of a research-grade physical activity monitor to wear during waking hours for the following 7 days. Both studies showed that (1) using non-bouted (total) minutes of MVPA resulted in significantly more minutes than using 10-minute bouts only (across calculation methods), and (2) calculation methods meaningfully differed in the number of MVPA minutes they estimated (across non-bouted and bouted MVPA). Additionally, two of the methods (Freedson et al., and Troiano et al.) showed that midlife women did not meet MVPA recommendations using either bouts or not-bouts, while the other two methods (Matthews et al., and Swartz et al.) showed that midlife women met or exceeded MVPA recommendations if non-bouted minutes were considered.

What does this tell us?

Overall, our series of studies seems to be the first of its kind to focus on differences between cut point methods for physical activity among midlife women with elevated CVD risk, and to compare MVPA bouts with total (non-bouted) minutes. Findings suggested that using different cut points provide different answers, and researchers should keep in mind respective strengths and weaknesses of each method. This work is not only timely considering recent changes in physical activity recommendations, but also necessary for understanding how to estimate MVPA toward the goal of reducing CVD risk in midlife women.

What was it like to work on this study?

“It is amazing to think about how far the lab has come with various iterations of this [observational] study. When it first started, Dr. Arigo and I were at The University of Scranton running a pilot for our WHADE project, which is now in its full form. At this time, we were just beginning to learn the ins and outs of recruiting through primary care. I still remember being excited at the thought of getting any experience in this setting. This was my first research experience recruiting outside of the college population. It was thrilling to be recruiting those out in the community, trying to meet people where they were. ”

– Kristen Pasko, CHASE Lab Member

“Collaborating with Dr. Arigo and her team at Rowan University was an incredible experience. I processed some of the accelerometers from Drexel University that were used as part of this larger study. Working on this project allowed me to see the research process through from start to finish, from assisting with analyzing the raw data to the writing of the manuscript. Before this project, I had never worked on research specifically relevant to the question of women’s health and physical activity. It was a pleasure to work with Dr. Arigo and her students to answer such an important research question that has clear clinical implications for how women are advised to engage in physical activity.”

–  Savannah Roberts, Former research coordinator at Drexel’s WELL Center (current Ph.D. student at the University of Pittsburgh)

“This was a pretty large project that involved a number of team members, for two different studies, across three different universities (including Rowan, Drexel, and Penn State). So it took a lot of open communication and teamwork to bring the project together and communicate what we found. Our group was fantastic and stayed focused on learning what we could from the project. It’s been fun and rewarding to do this work and see it published in a journal that focuses on women’s health.”

– Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab director

Next Steps

If you follow our posts, you’ll remember that recently, we summarized our review of studies that assess social comparison using within-person methods – those that capture comparisons repeatedly for the same person over days or weeks. This review and the physical activity study described in this post was designed to help us make informed decisions about how to estimate midlife women’s physical activity in our women’s health study, which is running now. The goal of this work is to understand the circumstances that contribute to changes in midlife women’s physical activity from day to day, and ultimately, to design better activity interventions for midlife women. Stay tuned as we work toward these goals!