A Spotlight on Dr. Astrida Kaugars, Associate Professor

By Maura Coffey, Undergraduate Psychology Major


Quick Facts:
Earned Ph. D from Case Western Reserve University

Dr. Astrida Kaugars is a busy Marquette psychology professor, both inside the classroom and out.

She teaches undergraduate courses such as Health Psychology and Psychology of the Exceptional Child, as well as a number of graduate level courses.  In her pediatric psychology lab, she collaborates with other professionals such as endocrinologists, dietitians, social workers and nurses to better the outcomes for children and adolescents with Type 1 Diabetes.  Kaugars values this interdisciplinary research team, stating, “I enjoy collaborating and benefiting from the perspectives of people from different disciplines.”

When reflecting upon her research career thus far, Kaugars has learned a great deal about both the psychology field and the participants themselves.  “I’ve learned how intriguing the research process can be.  There are so many ways to ask research questions and find answers.”  On a more person-centered level, Kaugars states, “I’ve realized how resilient individuals and families are and how important it is to really understand the unique circumstances of people’s lives.”

In the future, Kaugars is planning on conducting a “longitudinal study of preschool children with Type 1 Diabetes and follow them and their families for two years, looking to see how individual and family characteristics are related to diabetes characteristics.”  She has recently applied for a grant that would fund this meaningful research.

The graduate students in Kaugars‘ research lab are thankful for her willingness to share her knowledge.  Christopher Fitzgerald, M.S. praises Kaugars’ guidance, “As a research advisor, Dr. Kaugars is profoundly knowledgeable about her area of study.  She consistently is able to balance providing guidance to her students while allowing their development of autonomy as independent researchers.”  Ashley Moss, B.S. has a similar view, citing Kaugars’ “knowledge of the field and expertise.  She chooses to be hands-on, guides me and helps me create meaningful project ideas.”

Kaugars and Fitzgerald have valuable advice to undergraduates interested in pursuing a career in clinical psychology.  Kaugars states, “Finding mentors is important and critical to navigate the many decisions.  It is also important to find out what you’re passionate about and what really interests you, because you need to be self-motivated to pursue graduate work.”  Fitzgerald emphasizes experience, stating, “I would encourage undergraduates who are interested in clinical psychology to become involved in a research lab.  It is a great way to help you determine what area of psychology you would like to pursue and it also helps you to develop relationships with faculty members.”

It will come as no surprise that Kaugars cites one of her biggest professional struggles as “finding enough time for everything.”  Kaugars’ tireless work does not go unnoticed.  Her teaching excellence and significant contributions to the field of psychology make her an asset to the Marquette psychology department.

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PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills)

Dr. Amy Van Hecke is an Assistant Professor in our Psychology Department whose research on the AUTISM SPECTRUM has gained much local attention in the media and an increasing national reputation.  Here, she provides a brief update on the happenings in her research lab:

Autism research in the Van Hecke lab is in full swing.  Our two PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) intervention groups for adolescents with autism spectrum disorders began in August.  Intakes are currently being conducted for the young adult PEERS group that will start in mid-October.  PEERS is an outpatient friendship-skills class developed at UCLA, and we are providing replication data to ensure the intervention is effective outside of California.  We’ve also added a component where we examine neural and physiological responses to the PEERS intervention.  Our central aim to determine whether making friends affects brain activity and cardiovascular regulation in individuals with autism, and early data indicates that changes in brain activity, due to the intervention, occur in the frontal and temporal cortices.

A number of student projects have stemmed from this study- Jeff Karst, MA, is looking at how the intervention affects parents’ mental health, stress, and parenting efficacy.  Sheryl Stevens, MA, is looking at how brain activity to a video of another teen changes due to the intervention, in teens with autism.  Kirsten Schohl just finished a thesis that provided replication data for PEERS being effective outside of California.  Lastly, Bridget Dolan, PEERS research coordinator, is looking at how in vivo interactions with other teens change due to the program.

A number of our undergraduates are also submitting posters to upcoming conferences, including Janel Wasisco, who hopes to present data on how PEERS affects self esteem and social anxiety, at the International Meeting for Autism Research in San Sebastian, Spain, next May.   Lucky for us, Janel will be studying abroad in Spain when the conference occurs, so we’ll have representation!  Special thanks go to Marquette and the Autism Society of SE WI for supporting this important work, which we hope to continue-our waiting lists continue to grow, and we are still seeking grants that would let us run more PEERS groups.  Regardless, it seems like we have discovered the trick to easy research subject recruitment- offer an effective intervention for free, and they will come!”


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Where’s the feeling?

Where’s the feeling? Emotional response to violence in historical photos

Dr. Nakia Gordon, Assistant Professor

My lab, which includes undergraduate and graduate students, is engaged in a research project that developed out of conversations with two humanities professors at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. It began when the art historian among us wondered aloud why her students appeared to be unaffected by images of the Abu Ghraib prison tortures. I suggested it was an empirical question whether they were truly unaffected or not.

My research interests in the neural underpinnings of emotion and emotion regulation led me to suspect the phenomenon she observed could have been the result of at least two factors. The first possibility was the students did have an emotional reaction, but chose not to report those emotions. The other possibility was that they very quickly engaged in emotion regulation strategies. Moreover, I suggested that with the proper neuroimaging technique we could “observe” those strategies.

As a first step, an undergraduate in the McNair Scholars program, helped develop the paradigm to determine which, if any, emotional responses participants had to these images. Participants identified the emotions they were feeling by rating at least 5 emotion adjectives (e.g. anger, disgust, cheerful, detached, and patriotic) on a scale of 0-10. They made these ratings before seeing any images and after viewing sets of violent images. Participants saw 3 sets of Abu Ghraib images, lynching images from Without Sanctuary, and generalized violence from the International Affective Pictures System (IAPS; Lang et al, 1996). Each set of images was shown for 20 seconds, with 5 images shown for 4 seconds each.

Our preliminary findings, presented at the Marquette University Diversity in Psychology Open House,  show us that the 20 participants, who mostly identified as white and were, on average, 19 years of age, felt less patriotism after viewing lynching and Abu Ghraib images relative to IAPS ones. They also felt more anger when viewing Abu Ghraib and lynching photos relative to IAPS. Finally, levels of disgust depended on whether the victims were the focal point of the image or whether onlookers were.

We conclude that images of violence invoke self-reported emotional responses. The responses are stronger for ethnic group victimization than generalized violence. Unfortunately, we have a small homogeneous sample and are unable to draw any conclusions about how ethnic identity may interact with these types of images. We are continuing to collect data so that we can answer questions related to emotion regulation. We also hope to illuminate how tolerance to these types of crimes comes to pass


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Inaugural Blog

By Ed de St. Aubin and Trish Johnson

The Psychology Department of Marquette University has decided to begin a blog.  The goal is to send out a blog on the first and third Friday of each month.  These missives are meant to inform interested readers – graduates of the psychology department, the wider Marquette community, and those interested in the science and practice of Psychology – about happenings in the department and in the discipline.

There is so much fascinating research and clinical work going on in the department that we want to tell others about our efforts and we want to encourage dialogue and community building.  Our thought at this time is that the blogs – authored by department faculty, students, and graduates – will each focus on one of the many happenings in the department or in the wider field of Psychology.  What is going on in the Autism lab?  How is the ADHD clinic reaching out to ethnic minority clients?  What are these new brain imaging techniques and how will that advance the science?  What are the undergraduates’ favorite courses? Where are some of our graduates now?  Who is this new faculty member? And so on.

But we remain open to the idea that the blog may become something a bit different. We strongly encourage YOU to contact us and let us know what you want to hear about. Faculty member Ed de St. Aubin (414-288-2143) and Department Administrator Trish Johnson will work together to get the blogs posted and to archive them on the department’s web pages.

So, welcome to the new blog. Happy reading. And please do contact us with any ideas or reactions you might have.

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