Grant gives cultural bent to study of compassion

The NAU Department of Psychology has received a three-year, nearly $1/2 million grant to train undergraduate students in Hojooba’ bee la’ hooniil, Undergraduate Studies into the Social Psychophysiology of Compassion.

The National Science Foundation awarded the grant to Larry Stevens, director of the Research Experience for Undergraduates program and professor of psychology, to study compassion and empathy, particularly from the perspectives of under-represented cultural groups.

Mentoring the next wave of psychology researchers

The Research Experience for Undergraduates is an intensive
10-week summer program designed to introduce students to the world of scientific research. At NAU, students work closely with a faculty mentor on independent research projects that match their interests. The following pairings took place in the psychology department this summer:

Michelle Harris, University of Arizona, studied the role of self-compassion in the friendship experiences of young adults, with faculty mentor Meliksah Demir, assistant professor of psychology.
Ivan Valenzuela, Northern Arizona University, studied the positioning of compassionate masculinity and relational intimacy in the development of self-concepts in Latino and Hispanic men, with Andrew Walters, associate professor of psychology.
Michael Brower, NAU, researched self-centeredness, coping styles and reactions to unemployment, with Steven Funk, associate professor of psychology.
Akiee Mayon, NAU, studied the role of compassionate family support in coping with job loss, with Ann Huffman, associate professor of psychology.
Janeen Denny, NAU/Diné College, researched the EEG neuroimaging of the Quiet (Compassionate) Ego, with Larry Stevens, professor of psychology.
Christine Villasenor, Fort Lewis College, researched the psychosocial correlates of personal growth, empathy and compassion in the wake of job loss, with psychology professor Heidi Wayment.
Lynnette Cuellar, University of New Mexico, and Ashanti Bragg, Norfolk State University, studied the neuroimaging of psychophysiological correlations of empathic perspective-taking in the brain mirror neuron system, with Chad Woodruff, assistant professor of psychology.

NAU Departments of AstronomyMathematics and Statistics and Environmental Sciences also brought student researchers to campus this summer through REU programs.

Titled with a Navajo phrase meaning “the expression of loving kindness as healing to the suffering of society,” the program supports eight 10-week summer research internships. Undergraduates from across the country collaborate with doctoral faculty in psychological research and gain cultural awareness and understanding exploring northern Arizona.

The internships are a good match for the NSF and NAU’s mission to stimulate research careers by attracting and training a new generation of scientists.

Stevens said the goal is to turn students onto research so they leave this program excited about science and wanting to pursue a career in it while providing support to underrepresented students who want to become academics.

NAU faculty welcome students as colleagues. “The most exciting thing is when students start teaching us about their perspectives and their cultures’ perspectives on compassion,” Stevens said. “It’s been an overwhelming success.”

For students the best part is getting their hands dirty doing graduate-style research, earning the opportunity to be published, developing a background in a variety of psychological areas and working with NAU faculty.

Michelle Harris, from the University of Arizona, encountered “the most friendly and encouraging faculty” while studying the role of self compassion in friendship experiences. “They love to teach and love what they do,” she said.

Stevens organizes a diverse faculty—health, social, developmental and physiological psychologists—challenging them to work with students and each other to understand compassion from their specialties’ unique perspectives.

Chad Woodruff, assistant professor of psychology, commends the programs’ benefits to the students as well as faculty.

“REU unites the common interest and passion of the psychology faculty,” he said. “It strengthens that compassion commonality we have as professors.”

And as far as the students, Woodruff gets excited about watching them learn how to do top-notch research.

NAU student sophomore Akiee Mayon looked at compassion from a social side, studying how family support affects unemployed individuals. Upon completion of the program which “sculpted me to be able to do research and go further in my psychology degree,” Mayon said he wishes “everyone could see what we are seeing, what we are learning about empathy and compassion and get that sense of common humanity with others.”