CHASE Lab Annual Report for 2020

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It’s been a busy and difficult year, so it’s especially important that we recognize and celebrate our hard work and accomplishments. Here is a summary of our group’s activities for the year:

In addition, members passed important milestones in their training:

  • Cole Ainsworth (Postdoctoral Fellow) took over as lab manager and taught his first online courses.
  • Kristen Pasko (3rd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully defended her Master’s thesis and received her M.A. degree. She also submitted her findings as an abstract to the Society of Behavioral Medicine’s virtual annual meeting (SBM) a submitted a separate, first-authored manuscript for publication.
  • Laura Travers (2nd-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) successfully proposed her Master’s thesis and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
  • Megan Brown (1st-Year Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Student) transitioned from research coordinator/lab manager to graduate student. She also received approval for her first-year research project and submitted a first-authored abstract to SBM.
  • Emily Vendetta (1st-Year School Psychology Master’s Student) transitioned from undergraduate to graduate research assistant and used her CHASE Lab experience to design a strong research proposal for a class.
  • Bernard Kwiatek (Senior Undergraduate Research Assistant) determined his desired career path and started planning for graduate training in mental health counseling.
  • Heather Mulvenna and Sam Hart (Senior Undergraduate Work Study Students) became invaluable assets to the CHASE Lab and started planning for their next steps.

Finally, Dr. Dani Arigo (Lab Director) received a Short-Term Research Travel Grant from the Humboldt Centre of International Excellence to conduct a collaborative project with a host at the University of Bayreuth in Germany (Dr. Laura König). Public safety conditions permitting, she will travel to Bayreuth to work on this project in Summer 2021.

Happy New Year from the CHASE Lab!

An Insider’s Look at Our Newest Paper: Social Predictors of Daily Relations between College Women’s Physical Activity Intentions and Behavior

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Note: This post features a discussion about the association between social comparison and physical activity.  If you are new to this topic or would like an in-depth overview, please read our previous posts on social comparison and its influences on health behaviors. Briefly, when we compare something about ourselves to that of another person, we’re making a social comparison. Take exercise, for example. We might make a comparison based on minutes of exercise between us and them. Further, we could compare ourselves to someone doing better (upward) or worse (downward) with exercise minutes. Past research has shown social comparison to be important for understanding changes in physical activity. However, more research is needed to understand how we can use social comparison to guide a person toward greater physical activity behavior–a key focus of this post and our paper.

One challenge to being physically active is that even when we set intentions to exercise, it’s difficult to follow through. This is called the “intention-behavior gap.” Though existing studies have shown that some people are better at the follow-through than others, and have smaller (or no) gaps between their exercise intentions and behavior. It’s possible that learning more about the people who don’t follow through could help us design and adapt exercise interventions to be more effective for them. For our most recent paper, our now in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, we wanted to know whether a person’s social comparison tendencies or their perceptions of social support affect the link between their physical activity intentions and actual behaviors. For example, it’s possible that people who make comparisons more often or generally feel more supported by close others and have more confidence in their ability to follow through on their intentions, relative to people who are lower in these characteristics. This may be especially true for college women, as social experiences are more strongly connected to their health behaviors than in other groups.

We selected this topic because:

  • Women are generally less active than men, especially in college, and may face additional challenges in meeting their physical activity intentions.
  • Both social comparison and social support have been linked to health behaviors like physical activity, but their influences on the intention-behavior gap have rarely been studied.

What Were Our Research Questions and Expected Outcomes?

Question #1
First, we wanted to know more about college women’s exercise intentions (e.g., how often they were set) and behaviors (i.e., minutes in moderate + vigorous intensity activity). We selected women who were not already meeting exercise guidelines for health, to understand whether the intention-behavior gap was common for them. Based on existing evidence, we expected poor or moderate follow-through with exercise intentions.

Question #2
Second, we wanted to know whether college women’s perceptions of their social comparisons or social support is related to their  intention-behavior gap. We expected that greater social comparison and support would reduce the gap.

What Did We Do?

We conducted a 7-day observational study among 80 women students at a university in northeastern Pennsylvania (USA). Essentially, this design means that participants are asked to go about their normal activities while wearing monitors and responding to questions about their recent experiences; they didn’t participate in an intervention program or receive an experimental manipulation. Women interested in participation completed an initial online survey about demographics, social comparison, and social support. We reviewed responses and invited women to the study based on our eligibility criteria:

  •      No experience with wrist-worn/smartphone-based physical activity monitors
  •      <100 minutes/week moderate-to-vigorous physical activity
  •      2nd-year student or above (to avoid effects from the transition to college)

After attending a face-to-face orientation, we asked each participant to use an electronic diary to report daily exercise  intentions and wear a Fitbit to monitor their exercise behavior for 7 days. 

What Did We Find?

  • Exercise intentions were set on 36% of days – an average of 2-3 days a week, per person.
  • On days with set intentions, the average intention was 41 minutes of moderate + vigorous activity.
  • Based on Fitbit records, 26 minutes a day were spent in exercise, on average.
    • Minutes of exercise varied in participants from day to day.
  • Participants got about 12 more minutes of exercise on days with set intentions, versus those without; this difference was not statistically significant.
  • Social support did not affect the intention-behavior gap, but overall social comparison tendency did (i.e., greater interest in social comparison reduced the gap between intention and behavior).
    • The tendency to make downward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as worse-off) also reduced the gap, but the tendency to make upward comparisons (i.e., toward someone seen as better-off) had no effect.

What Does This Tell Us?

Unsurprisingly, low-active college women often do not set intentions to exercise. When they do set intentions, their increase in exercise is typically small and does not fulfill their intentions. This suggests a noticeable gap between college women’s exercise intentions and behavior. Social support was not linked to improvements in the intention-behavior gap, but social comparison was. Specifically, downward comparisons appear to help reduce the gap. In the future, targeting social comparison processes may improve the intention-behavior gap and reduce physical activity differences between women and men. This could help to improve women’s health during college and across the lifespan.

What Was it Like to Work on This Study?

“Dr. Arigo gave me the opportunity to learn about the research process from start to finish in the Clinical Health Psychology Lab at the University of Scranton. Through project CHASE, I had the ability to assist with participant recruitment, enrollment, technology troubleshooting, data collection, and finally manuscript writing. This broad skill set has strengthened my current research in medical school. Although writing a manuscript was intimidating, I learned how to write academically with the assistance of Leah Schumacher, Dr. Arigo, and Cole Ainsworth. It was great seeing the scientific process from start to finish, culminating in great results. I’m so proud to be a member of this team of researchers!”

Coco Thomas, Medical Student at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine

”I joined this project after the study had finished, as our team was preparing to write the paper. This topic was new to me, so it was a challenge at times to understand the ‘big picture’ of our results–how they fit into the existing literature and what value they provide. However, having a fresh perspective helped ensure that we didn’t gloss over any details needed for readers to fully grasp what this study was about. As a whole, this project is yet another example of the CHASE Lab’s dedication to improving women’s health, and it has been a pleasure working as part of that team.”

Dr. Cole Ainsworth, Postdoctoral Fellow with the CHASE Lab, Rowan University

“This project was a lot of fun to work on and was a true collaborative effort. The project team spanned institutions, experience levels, and disciplines. Over the course of working on the paper, I think that every single one of us also transitioned into a new professional role: Dr. Ainsworth and I started postdoctoral fellowships, Coco began medical school, and Dr. Arigo moved to a new institution. While this meant that progress was a bit slower at times and that the four of us never met together in a physical room, it was a real pleasure to work with such a fantastic group of people and to work so effectively as a team to get this project across the finish line. I am really thankful to have had the opportunity to work on this project and hope to work on many more projects together in the future!”

Dr. Leah Schumacher, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Alpert Medical School, Brown University

I’ve been interested in the physical activity intention-behavior gap for a while, and always wanted an opportunity to study whether social comparison or social support were associated with this phenomenon. That wasn’t one of the original intentions of data collection, but that’s what’s great about secondary analyses – you already have the data and you can ask new questions. Like the rest of our team, I had a great experience working on this paper and I’m so impressed with everyone’s commitment to seeing it come together.

Dr. Dani Arigo, CHASE Lab Director

What Comes Next?

We’re pleased to be working with a team from UNC Greensboro to dig deeper into the physical activity intention-behavior gap. This time, we’re looking at it among women in midlife (ages 40-60) using smaller time blocks – chunks of 2-3 hours, rather than full days. Stay tuned!

Social Comparison Might Not Be As Bad As We’re Told

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By Kristen Pasko, Cole Ainsworth, And Dr. Dani Arigo

“Don’t compare yourself to others” is frequently offered as advice for preventing spikes in anxiety and other negative emotions. This advice can be found on popular websites like Psychology Today, Healthline, and Medium. At face value, it seems like good advice – who wants to feel bad about themselves? But the perspective that “social comparisons are bad, don’t make them” is incomplete, and does not reflect the entire picture of social comparison as a basic human process. Forcing ourselves to avoid making comparisons is nearly impossible and might actually be harmful. Comparisons can also be positive, and some can be useful, even if they don’t make us happy in the moment. In this post, we want to offer another perspective on social comparison, with a special focus on how comparisons can be used to encourage health behaviors. 

What Do We Know about Social Comparison?

Social comparison has been of interest to psychologists for decades. Leon Festinger developed the first formal theory of social comparison in 1954. He proposed that we have a built-in drive to evaluate ourselves, and when objective standards (i.e., hierarchy of positions in a company)  aren’t available, we default to using social standards (other people). Later work showed that social comparison isn’t just a substitute for unavailable objective standards – even when these are available, people often prefer social standards!

Social comparison describes the process of a person noticing and evaluating something about themselves in relation to another person. This could be in domains such as work status, wealth, beliefs, health, or appearance. A person can see themselves as better off than, worse off than, or about the same as another individual in any of these domains. From Festinger’s work and others succeeding him, we know that comparison is one of our fundamental cognitive processes (how we make sense of, store, and apply information about other people and social situations). Making comparisons can help to increase cognitive accessibility of certain information. In other words, it reduces the time it takes to mentally sort and select information when thinking and talking about important topics. 

Key Terms

DIRECTION OF COMPARISON

Upward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing better than we are in a given domain

  • Example: She is so much more attractive than I am. I really wish I had hair like hers.

Downward social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing worse than we are in a given domain

  • Example: I’m definitely healthier than he is, with all of his health symptoms. 

Lateral social comparison = perceiving that another person is doing about the same as we are in a given domain

  • Example: We’re performing about the same at work. 

COMPARISON TARGET: person that an individual compares themselves to; often similar to the individual making the comparison

Moderate target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “not too far off” from us

  • Example: This person is somewhat similar to me, even if they’re doing a little better/worse.

Extreme target = selecting a person for comparison who seems “pretty far off” from us 

  • Example: That person is nothing like me – they’re doing so much better/worse.

 Of these, upward comparisons have the worst reputation. These are the ones that websites tell us to avoid. But research suggests that upward comparisons (as well as downward and lateral comparisons) can have benefits. 

How Can Each Type of Social Comparison Be Beneficial? 

Let’s examine some examples from scientific literature. Upward comparisons can be useful for self-improvement related to job uncertainty (a stressor that could hinder achieving one’s career goals), as they might promote greater goal engagement. In other words, individuals who made upward comparisons more frequently were more likely to move towards their goals. Downward comparisons can be useful in romantic relationships, as individuals who engaged in more frequent downward comparisons about their relationships (compared to individuals who make lateral comparisons) later reported greater relationship satisfaction. Comparisons are even useful for a variety of populations. For example, they may work differently within the context of chronic illness, though still provide benefit. Specifically, individuals from the general population without chronic illness often prefer to see/hear about others that are doing worse than them (downward social comparison) to feel better about themselves. However, individuals with chronic illness tend to prefer contact with those who are doing about the same of better than them (lateral or upward comparison), as it provides reassurance about their current health or serves a picture of how they might look in the future (i.e., in better health). For example, adolescents with chronic illnesses who made lateral comparisons to other ill peers (vs. upward comparisons to well peers) reported greater feelings of social acceptance, happiness with their physical appearance, and global self-worth (personal value).

How are Social Comparisons and Health Behaviors Related?

Social comparisons may also have benefits for promoting healthy behavior. In general, social connections are increasingly recognized as useful in health behavior interventions. This might look like an intervention delivered on a social media platform to increase healthy eating or physical activity, where people are connected with a buddy or team and they can see each other’s progress (e.g., a leaderboard showing how many steps they took during the week vs. how many steps others took). Out of 3 top social strategies that are used to promote better health behavior (competition, comparison, cooperation), social comparison has been shown as the most effective. According to the authors of this study, the main strengths of social comparison include promotion of “subtle and empowering peer pressure.” Social media platforms have also induced social comparison by connecting people to one another to motivate medication management, allowing the sharing of calorie and nutrient consumption to promote a healthy diet, or ranking group members’ physical activity (i.e., steps) on a leaderboard.

A recent three-part study also showed that, regardless of direction (upward, downward, lateral), people who compared with moderate targets had greater physical activity motivation compared to those who compared with extreme targets (see definitions above). Therefore, if targets were moderate (close in activity engagement to the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation increased, as physical activity appeared more achievable. Conversely, targets that were extreme (farther away in activity engagement from the person making the comparison), physical activity motivation was decreased, as the same outcome appeared less achievable. This study suggests that the direction of comparison may not matter as much as whether our own performance is close to or far away from the performance of our targets.  

Food for Thought

Comparisons are quite natural and occur more often than some people would like to admit. Often they are automatic. Therefore, putting pressure on yourself to avoid making comparisons might be an unrealistic goal. Making comparisons is NOT something individuals need to be ashamed of! So, what are potential ways we can manage comparisons?

Try to be flexible about the way you are thinking about comparisons. Comparisons might provide us with examples of how other people are doing/viewing something, to save up our time and energy for future situations. In other words, they might be protective. You might ask yourself, “how can I use this person as a role model?” or “can I find a better (e.g., more realistic) role model?”. While comparing ourselves to these role models might make us feel a little bad at times, that little bit of negative emotion might motivate us to make some change!*

CHASE Lab’s Recent Work on Social Comparison

  • Methods to Assess Social Comparison Processes within Persons in Daily Life: A Scoping Review
    • What we learned: most available research on social comparison that assessed the same people multiple times were assessing: 1) women, 2) college students, and 3) social comparisons of appearance rather than other domains (i.e., wealth, health). Most studies signaled participants to report on their recent comparisons instead of asking participants to record them as they were happening. There was a lot of variability in the way the comparisons were assessed (i.e., how many times they were prompted per day, how “social comparison” was defined).
    • Future implications: we need to examine social comparisons using repeated assessment in a wider range of individuals, to better understand how the process affects us in daily life. See this article    See our blog post summary
  • Social Comparison Features in Physical Activity Apps: Scoping Meta-review
    • What we learned: social comparison processes were present in 31% of published articles that described behavior change techniques in mobile apps to promote physical activity. Though very few described what aspect of physical activity was compared (steps vs. active minutes). No studies identified social comparison features that were tailored to fit user preferences.
    • Future Implications: articles that describe social comparison features in apps should be more specific (i.e., about what is being compared or how comparison is being induced) and should consider individual differences in preferences and responses to social comparison. See this article   See our blog post summary
  • Daily Relations between Social Perceptions and Physical Activity among College Women
    • What we learned: college women engaged in less physical activity on the days that they reported making (vs. not making) comparisons – except comparisons in the health domain, which were on days with more physical activity (for a subset of women).
    • Future implications: days on which individuals report making comparisons (with exception of health comparisons) might be good days to intervene to prevent reductions in physical activity.  See this article    See our blog post summary

What We Have In the Works

  • Project WHADE – Read about our methods
  • Fitspiration Exposure Study – experimental manipulation of messaging that accompanies fitspiration posts, and its effects on body satisfaction, exercise motivation, and exercise behavior (more on this soon!)

*A little bit of negative emotion can signal to us that we want to make some changes, to avoid feeling this way in the future. But as many articles have pointed out by recommending that we avoid comparisons, we shouldn’t have to feel bad all the time, or even most of the time. If your comparisons are contributing to problems, please don’t hesitate to seek support. Visit https://www.7cups.com/ for free resources.

Keeping Busy During a Pandemic: CHASE Lab’s Current Activities

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It’s been a while since we posted, and we wanted to share some of the research activities we’ve been working on and what we’ve been learning about this fall. See here for more about our team and visit the linked pages below to read interviews with specific team members. (No link for a particular person? Stay tuned for upcoming interviews with them!)

So what have we been up to this fall?

Remote meetings continue! Here we are at our Halloween celebration – some of us got into the holiday spirit.

COLE (Postdoctoral Fellow/Lab Manager): I’ve been preparing research materials for a new project on midlife adults’ responses to physical activity messages. I’ve also monitored the completion of an online survey about perceptions of social media among adults with type 1 diabetes, and I’ve been developing a blog post and infographic for our soon-to-be published study on the physical activity intentions of college women. These recent activities contribute to my goal of strengthening my skills related to project management and science communication. 

HEATHER (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching and compiling research articles using online databases, which has allowed me practice techniques I learned in a previous research methods course (e.g., keyword combination). Developing this skill has allowed me to better contribute to the CHASE Lab’s projects and will help me with my own future research. It has also exposed me to a variety of study designs and helped me learn about different approaches to answering research questions. I have also become more familiar with the style of academic writing, which will be useful when writing my own papers during graduate school and beyond.

LAURA (2nd-Year Ph.D. Student): I am working on my thesis project, which examines relations between PTSD and pain among older adults. I am also in the very beginning stages of an additional project about the connection between pain and social comparison. Hopefully, there is more to come as the year progresses, but I’ve been learning strategies that have helped with my scientific writing (such as outlining for structure, task prioritization, and how to consolidate feedback from multiple people).

BERNARD (Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have been searching for and reading articles about text messaging and physical activity, to help direct a related study we’re preparing for. I’ve also spent time brainstorming new messages that can be used in an app or website to motivate others to be more physically active.

KRISTEN (3rd-Year Ph.D. Student): I recently revisited a project that examines associations between social media platform use and health behaviors of college students, and we just submitted the manuscript for publication. I’ve also been preparing for a related project that is a candidate for my dissertation, focused on developing a self report measure of social media use for clinical settings.

SAM (Work Study Student/Undergraduate Research Assistant): I have learned so much working with the CHASE Lab this semester, such as how to navigate different online databases like Google Scholar and ProQuest to find relevant research papers and extract information from them. I have also learned ways to use that information to develop materials for studies we are planning in the lab. Being able to meet and talk with people at different stages of their careers has given me a better understanding of how to prepare for graduate school.

MEGAN (1st-Year Ph.D. Student): I’ve been working on my thesis proposal, which I will present during my first year as a Ph.D. student. The study will examine the relation between social physique anxiety (or anxiety about having one’s body evaluated by others) and physical activity among women at risk for cardiovascular disease. I will also explore other factors that influence this relation. Throughout my time developing and writing this proposal, I have learned new skills which have helped strengthen my scientific writing.  

EMILY (1st-Year Masters Student): Lately I’ve been brainstorming content for a tool that will support physical activity engagement for inactive midlife adults. I also have been reviewing research on text message interventions to help promote physical activity. My time in the lab reviewing and learning more about research has helped prepare me for my Masters program. I feel confident in my classes this Fall knowing how to find quality, well-written research articles for my papers. 

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!