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AU Alumni Make Strides in Social Psychology

social psychology

Four American University alumni are making their mark in the field of social psychology, the study of how the personality, attitudes, motivations, and behavior of the individual influence and are influenced by social groups.

“American University psychology students are well prepared for graduate work in many areas,” said David Haaga, professor of psychology and chair of the Psychology Department. “One shining example is this group of students doing important research in social psychology.”

Jennifer Taber: National Cancer Institute and Kent State

Jennifer Taber (BA psychology ’08), who received her doctorate in social psychology from the University of Utah, serves as a Cancer Research Training Award Fellow at the National Cancer Institute. She focuses on health communications, risk perceptions, cancer screening, and genetic/genomic testing. She recently accepted a tenure line position at Kent State.

As an undergrad at AU, Taber took a research design course taught by Kathleen Gunthert, associate professor of psychology. Taber also volunteered as Gunthert’s lab assistant, who noted Taber’s early interest in the area of social psychology. “Jennifer was drawn to social psychology, with a very specific emphasis on the use of psychology research to intervene at the community level and to improve health decision making,” said Gunthert. “For her senior thesis at AU, she designed an impressive project that focused on mechanisms of information of information dissemination to increase the public awareness of human papillomavirus (HPV).”

Melissa Soenke: Skidmore and California State University-Channel Islands

Melissa Soenke (BA psychology ’07) has received a tenure-line position at California State University—Channel Islands. She received her doctorate in social psychology from the University of Arizona in 2014 and worked for one year on the faculty at Skidmore College. She studies the effects of the awareness of mortality on perceptions of such topics as climate change and symbols of Islam.

During her time at AU, Soenke took an advanced research methods course in psychology. “By the time she took the advanced research course, she had some really interesting ideas that were grounded in terror management theory,” says Gunthert. “She designed her own really strong empirical study on mortality salience. With this training and interest as her foundation, she was able to get into a PhD program to work with one of the leading experts in terror management theory. She is now truly an expert and productive in her own line of research—in fact, I recently reached out to her for help in study design for a relevant project.”

Katie Rotella: Johnson and Johnson

Katie Rotella (BA psychology’08) received her doctorate in social psychology from Northwestern University, where she worked with MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant winner Jennifer Richeson. Rotella is now a senior scientist at Johnson & Johnson. Her research on beliefs about torture has been featured on National Public Radio. She is also interested in the effects of perceiving one’s group to be victimized.

While she studied at AU, Rotella received the 2008 Charles B. Ferster Award for undergraduate students in psychology. “Kate was really a standout at AU. As an undergrad, she seemed more like a graduate student in her grasp of research. She worked in a number of different research labs at AU, and I remember that she was particularly interested in social processes,” says Gunthert. “She had a great instinct for interesting research questions, and a sharp mind for study design. We all had a strong hunch that she had a bright future in research.”

Kimberly Bowen: Kyoto University and Ohio State University

Kimberly Bowen (BA psychology ’06) received her doctorate in social psychology from the University of Utah this year. Her research interests are in the area of health psychology and include a focus on stress, social support, and blood pressure. She was an International Research Fellow at Kyoto University and is now a postdoctoral fellow in psychoneuroimmunology at Ohio State University.

While she studied at AU, Bowen received the 2007 Charles B. Ferster Award for undergraduate students in psychology. “Kimberly Bowen completed a very interesting study regarding undergraduate women’s perceptions of career success and how they might be influenced by the beauty [judged from photographs] of the women they were reading about and evaluating,” says Haaga. “Kimberly’s project was derived from theory and research in social psychology, foreshadowing her graduate school interests. She subsequently worked as a research assistant on a cigarette smoking cessation study I directed."