U.Va. Grad Students and Faculty Explore LIFE in Detail

A program that is putting University of Virginia graduate psychology students and professors in touch with colleagues around the world – inside and outside their field – is earning acclaim.

The American Psychological Association recently granted its Innovative Practices in Graduate Education Award to the Life Course: Evolutionary and Ontogenetic Dynamics program a multi-university collaboration – known simply as "LIFE" – that studies issues pertaining to human development from social, behavioral and neuroscience perspectives

Other member institutions include the University of Michigan and the University of Zurich, and in Berlin, the Max Planck Institute, Humboldt University and Free University. The virtual institute's main activities include seminars, biannual academies, workshops and dissertation mentorships hosted by each institution on a revolving basis. While those participating at U.Va. come mainly from psychology backgrounds, LIFE's other scholars include biologists, sociologists, neuroscientists and educators.

The program was developed in 2002 by the late Paul Baltes, then at the Max Planck Institute and subsequently a Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Advanced Study Fellow in U.Va.'s College of Arts & Sciences. U.Va. formally joined LIFE a year after Baltes' 2003 arrival, boosted by the efforts of John Nesselroade, Hugh Scott Hamilton Professor of Psychology. Funding for U.Va.'s participation comes from both the Department of Psychology and the Virginia Institute on Aging.

Thomas Talhelm, a graduate student in social psychology, said the LIFE's two-year graduate student fellowship enhanced his own research through its difficult-but-revealing perspective of looking at and modeling change in people over time, often employing complex statistical and quantitative methods.

"I'm always trying to observe people's behavior and how they differ," Talhelm said.

His three years living in China paved the way for what he calls his "rice theory of culture," which he presented at a LIFE conference in May. He observed that people seemed very reserved in rice-growing areas south of the Yangtze River, but were significantly more outgoing in the wheat-growing north. Intrigued, Talhelm explored the validity of the subsistence theory of culture which claims that thousands of years of historical practices determine a given culture and thus whether the behaviors and requirements of each type of farming dictated the differing dispositions of north and south. He is also interested in the experiences and dispositions of those who move across the Yangtze in either direction.

"I was attracted to LIFE partly because I do culture and the idea of doing research with professors of other cultures was really attractive to me," Talhelm said. In addition, "It's nice to be able to get out and listen to people doing completely different work from you that you wouldn't normally seek out." He continues to embrace this international perspective, recently accepting a Fulbright Scholarship to continue performing research in China.

Chris Beam, another U.Va. fellow of the LIFE program, said he knew he wanted to join within a month of arriving at U.Va. to begin his graduate career. Under his adviser, clinical and quantitative psychology professor Eric Turkheimer, Beam researches the effects of interpersonal relationships on adult psychopathology, as well as the development of cognitive ability over the human lifespan. He is currently using statistical models to investigate ways in which genetic and environmental differences between siblings in one family are expressed by their behavior and reinforced by their environment.

Particularly in tune with the ethos of the LIFE course, he said the intent of his work is to show how the process unfolds from infancy to late life. So far, his research indicates that sibling differences increase over time, but likely stabilize in the 20s.

The difference between Talhelm and Beam's work demonstrates the diversity that Beam sees as the key advantage of being a LIFE fellow.

"The collaborative nature of the program builds a strong sense that research ought to be multidisciplinary, drawing from biological, psychological and sociological perspectives combined with strong data analytic methods," he said. "Also, I now have many additional colleagues and friends abroad with whom I collaborate on projects."

Steven Boker, a professor of quantitative psychology and speaker-director of the U.Va. component of LIFE, shared a similar outlook on the value of the program and in particular the bi-annual research academies, one of which U.Va. will host this fall. "These are really terrific experiences for the fellows as well as the faculty," he said.

U.Va. is among the top five institutions worldwide taking a quantitative perspective on psychology, Boker said, and is well-suited to studying the lifespan with both cross-sectional snapshots and longitudinal, overall views. He aims to share this expertise with other universities in the LIFE program and beyond by hosting three different online classes that take advantage of a sophisticated "access grid room" at U.Va.'s Millmont Cottage. This setup employs four motorized cameras arrayed around the room and three projectors that form a contiguous video wall to facilitate conversation with many people in multiple locations.

Technology's role in the LIFE program differs greatly from the one-to-many, lecture-based orientation of most online classes, he said, instead designed to spark lively and engaging discussions across time zones. "It is so much fun to see someone pose a question here and have someone across the Atlantic answer," he said.

LIFE "is one of the most effective programs I have ever been involved with," Boker said. "Fellows learn about the diversity of the way people develop and are exposed to other cultures and fields they normally wouldn't as they discuss these issues."

As a result, he said, "people coming out of this program are more successful than their peers and are prepared to be outstanding scientists" – not confined to a narrow cone of personal expertise, but instead capable of collaborating widely.

– by Preston Pezzaro


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