National Institute on Aging Grant to Further Novel Research Methods Training

April 30, 2008 — John Nesselroade, an expert on quantitative research methods related to the field of adult development and aging, recently received a $205,835 grant from the National Institute on Aging. The grant will allow Nesselroade and his colleagues to continue training doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows in some of the most innovative quantitative modeling methods available today.

Acquiring this highly competitive funding is a big victory for Nesselroade, the Hugh Scott Hamilton Professor of Psychology, and his burgeoning lifespan development training program. Nesselroade, who has served as interim director of U.Va.'s Institute on Aging, has been building U.Va.'s research capacity in this area for over 15 years. His collaborative work with aging research experts Timothy Salthouse and the late Paul Baltes, quantitative psychology colleagues Steven Boker and Karen Schmidt, former colleague Jack McArdle, and the program's ongoing collaborations with the Max Planck Institute in Germany have earned U.Va. a reputation as an international methodological center for aging research.

The NIH grant features a noncompetitive renewal period, which means that the program will likely receive over $1 million over the next five years — providing support for three doctoral students and two postdoctoral researchers each year. This is the second such grant for the program, whose inaugural Ph.D. students have moved on to take faculty positions at top institutions, including Michigan State University, the University of California-Davis and Pennsylvania State University.

According to Nesselroade, a recent American Psychological Association report confirmed the dire need for trained quantitative behavioral scientists. The aging of the population makes this deficit all the more immediate — the more scientists trained in this area, the better chance there is to map the cognitive behavioral changes that occur with age and hopefully improve our understanding of age-related difficulties such as memory loss.

The program's emphasis is on developing and learning to apply methods to analyze behavioral data — especially data that are collected longitudinally. "We take the cognitive test scores of individuals and we try to see if there is some efficient mathematical or statistical way to summarize what is happening over time," explains Nesselroade.

Longitudinal data from cognitive test scores collected by Salthouse are currently being used to determine the nature of cognitive change over a period of a few years and whether that is different for younger and older people. "The typical picture that people have is that there is a decline in performance with advanced age," notes Nesselroade. "And there is to some extent, but we look at that in relation to what's happening at other ages and how it differs across variables."

Another aspect that Nesselroade and his colleagues are studying is the nature of short-term variability in performance and how that factors in to the equation. "If you measure the same people over a fairly short timeframe, they score differently each time, and so we are looking to see if that's just noise in the system or if it's some kind of meaningful variability," says Nesselroade.

The program draws on existing methodological procedures from psychology and a variety of other disciplines, including demography, sociology, physics and statistics. But emphasis is placed on coming up with better ways of modeling behavioral variation. "Trying to build some kind of representation of what is happening over time is not as easy as it sounds — unless you just plot averages. And that's not really very interesting," says Nesselroade. "Our hope is to have a place where scholars can produce new and improved methods for studying the development of change."

The project described was supported by Grant Number T32AG020500 from the National Institute on Aging. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute on Aging or the National Institutes of Health.