Here you will find information about current research projects I am working on. If you are interested in learning more about what I am doing, feel free to use the contact page to reach out!

Equity Initiative at WGU

I am currently Principal Investigator on a university-wide research and planning grant funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to understand the systems and processes that lead to inequity of academic outcomes for undeserved populations at Western Governors University (WGU).

The Equity Initiative at WGU is a collaborative effort between WGU Labs and WGU to better understand why inequity of access and attainment exists for students of color and low-income students, in particular. This grant covers two phases of work: Phase 1 is focused on research where we are using a mixed-methods approach including qualitative student interviews, survey methods, and institutional data analysis. Phase 2 is focused on planning where we are generative a multi-year Plan for Equity based on our research findings from Phase 1.

Impact of Social Support on Student Outcomes During COVID19

In collaboration with our colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University, Dr. Carolyn Rose & Meredith Riggs, we are investigating how social support from university faculty buffers the negative effects of COVID19 on student outcomes. See our OSF page for more details.

The COVID19 pandemic has caused unprecedented disruption to higher education and student learning. However, disentangling the impact of the pandemic on academic outcomes at traditional higher education institutions is made difficult by the fact that academic outcomes were affected by both the pandemic itself and by the abrupt, often rocky, online transition. Unique features of WGU’s education model — fully online, program mentors (i.e., a faculty member that supports a student through the entirety of their time as a student), and new terms beginning each month — afford the opportunity to evaluate the impact of the pandemic on student academic outcomes independent of the transition to online learning.

Leveraging WGU’s 100,000+ student population and detailed institutional data, including behavioral click-stream data in the learning portal and qualitative meeting notes from program mentors, we use topic modeling and statistical analysis to (1) evaluate the impact of the pandemic across WGU’s diverse student population, and (2) evaluate the important role of social support via student’s program mentors on student outcomes during this crisis. Through analysis of a 20-topic topic model applied to notes written by mentors about their interactions with students, we were able to separate students with evidence of COVID-19 related issues (e.g., having COVID-19, working on the front lines, increased child care issues) from those without (with 13% of students fitting into the HighCOVID category). We assessed the impact of evidence of COVID issues on number of course units earned for the Spring 2020 semester. We also separated students with above median number of interactions with a course mentor from those with lower than median number of interactions with a course mentor (HighSupport vs LowSupport). HighSupport students earned significantly more course units than LowSupport students (effect size = .17 s.d.). HighCOVID students also received more support on average than LowCOVID students. An interaction analysis showed that for HighSupport students there was no effect of COVID issues, and the same was true for LowSupport students, thus we have evidence for an important effect of social support regardless of COVID issues. These findings highlight the importance of social support for higher education institutions that are striving to deliver rigorous online education at scale during a crisis.

This research was presented at Learning@Scale in August 2020 and will be presented at SPSP in February 2021.

Evolution, Development, and Operation of Attachment Systems

My work on attachment psychology spans many areas, focusing on three primary questions: how attachment psychology evolved in humans, how it develops over the lifespan, and how it operates in adult romantic relationships.

My recent publication, The Nature of Attachment Systems, argues that infant-parent attachments and adult attachments constitute evolutionary distinct systems that evolved under unique selection pressures. I discuss the Mate Guarding Hypothesis of attachment arising from this framework here.

Other work in this area has focused on how romantic attachment operates in adult relationships, focusing on how attachment dimensions of anxiety and avoidance are related to mate retention outcomes — see here, here, and here. The primary conclusion from this work is that attachment anxiety, specifically, is robustly related to cost-inflicting (negative) partner-directed behaviors. At the more extreme end, attachment anxiety is also robustly related to intimate partner violence perpetration, which was the focus of my dissertation research.

Finally, I am developing work on how attachment psychology develops over the lifespan. In this line of work, I advocate that infant-parent attachments have little, if any, lasting implications for attachment psychology in adult relationships. Initial thoughts in this area are published here, with additional work currently in development.

Life History Theory and Human Development

Life history theory is a generative and popular framework for understanding human psychology and development. Early evolutionary theories in this area have focused heavily on female pubertal development, in particular.

My work in this area has focused on testing key predictions from a variety of life history derived developmental models using a behavior genetic lens to understand purported causal relationships between early rearing environments and sexual development outcomes.

Initial work in this area challenged the father absence hypothesis which stated that father absence early in female development would cause an acceleration of puberty marked by earlier time of menarche. My colleagues an I argued that this small association found in a 2014 meta-analysis could also be explained away via genetic confounding — a hypothesis not yet robustly tested.

In the subsequent years, research has cast heavy doubt on the plausibility of the father absence hypothesis. My ongoing work in this area using genetically-sensitive data shows it to be unlikely that the association between early rearing experiences and menarche timing exists at all, calling into question the plausibility of many life history derived developmental models of sexual development.