Graduate Student Profiles

Sara Berzenski — Developmental


Sara BerzenskiI am a graduate student in the Developmental area working with Dr. Tuppett Yates, and my work focuses on emotional development in contexts of adversity. Our lab maintains a large-scale longitudinal study investigating the impacts of adversity on children’s representational and regulatory capabilities, within a developmental psychopathology framework. Riverside and the broader Southern California area provide an ethnically and economically diverse population that is perfect for examining these types of questions. I am specifically studying the developmental processes associated with emotional competence, how these processes might be best understood by studying contexts of adversity, how they may be modified in those contexts, and how emotional competence may moderate the influence of adversity on adjustment. My dissertation will explore the developmental trajectories of emotion and behavior regulation from ages 4 through 6, their transactional effects on adjustment within and across time points, and the effects of adversity (e.g., child maltreatment) on these relations. The work we do in our lab represents a balance between the goals and aims of our mentor and those of each of the graduate students. We are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to really influence the data we collect and the questions we are able to ask, which is not always the case in a graduate student/mentor relationship. In fact, beginning this fall I will be working on an R01 grant submission with my advisor on which I will be a co-investigator.

Working in this lab has prepared me exceptionally well for an academic career, both with respect to the ability to develop and carry out independent research investigations, as well as in securing outside funding. Currently I am receiving 2 years of fellowship funding VIA a National Research Service Award (NRSA) from NIMH. UCR has been very successful in preparing students to apply for outside funding, and places a strong emphasis on this pursuit through department workshops and consultation, as well making information easily accessible about funding opportunities. This process is crucial both for funding a graduate education, as well as for preparing students to be future academics, learning the ins and outs of the grant application process.

The atmosphere in the psychology department at UCR is not one of competition, but rather of support and collaboration. This spirit of mentorship extends from the senior faculty, to the junior faculty, to the graduate students, and even to the undergraduates. I have mentored several undergraduates on honors theses, poster presentations, and research internships. Further, faculty members often consult with each other on anything from writing grants to analyzing data. They are also extremely accessible and a great collegial resource for the graduate students, and always eager to answer questions - from the theoretical to the statistical. It is really easy to learn from the expertise of the faculty, and at the same time feel confident developing independent skills. The psychology department at UCR has truly scaffolded my graduate education, prepared me for the job market, and provided a network of support that will extend throughout my academic career.


Arezou Ghane Cavanaugh — Social / Personality

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Arezou Ghane CavanaughI am a graduate student in the Social/Personality area working with Dr. Kate Sweeny at the Life Events Lab ( In addition to basic social/personality research, I am also interested in health psychology. When I first decided to apply to graduate school, I insisted on studying clinical psychology. I knew that I really enjoyed scientific research but it was important to me to do work that would serve and help people. However, after gaining experience working directly in the clinical field, I was not convinced that a career in clinical psychology was right for me. Learning about health psychology, I realized that I was able to conduct research that moves outside of the laboratory and has the power to influence the lives of people in the “real world.” I was attracted to UCR’s program because of the concentration of health psychology researchers and the innovative research topics that they helped to pioneer. Upon exchanging emails and meeting some of the faculty before submitting my application, it became apparent that UCR was a good fit for me. As a student, I have had a supportive community of mentors available to me. I also really appreciate the brown bag meetings and the many opportunities to present and exchange ideas with various member of the department.

So far, during my time at UCR,I have been able to take part in a series of projects that stimulate and inspire me. Some of these projects include: a study conducted in collaboration with the Riverside County Regional Medical Center on surgeon-patient communication, a study of law graduates awaiting their results on the BAR exam, laboratory simulations of medical visits, and atheoretical review in collaboration with researchers from the developmental area. I am currently beginning work on my dissertation studies, which will examine the influence of embodied (i.e., spatial, kinetic, situated) variables in women’s health. In addition to these opportunities within the department, I also take part in an interdisciplinary academic community on medical narratives, which gives me the chance to meet and collaborate with students and faculty from the other social sciences, humanities, and the upcoming UCR Medical School. Finally, along with some of my fellow graduate students, I was able to co-organize a mini-conference, TEDxUCR, based on the renowned TED Talks series.

All in all, I would say that my time at UCR has beenconstructive, enriching, and quite fulfilling.


Theresa Cook — Cognitive


Theresa CookWhen I think about words that describe UCR, the first three that come to mind are diversity, community, and research. UCR stands out as a place that welcomes differences in background, knowledge, and perspective, and this heterogeneity definitely extends to and enhances the experience of graduate students. As a true partner with both the local and the scientific communities, UCR extends unique opportunities to its graduate students for becoming involved at a deep and meaningful level. As a research institution, UCR is home to faculty of the highest caliber, and offers its graduate students a unique and exceptional combination of cutting-edge science and direct guidance from world-class scientists.

From the first moments I arrived here, the university offered many resources for graduate students to enhance their professional development. After attending a workshop on how to apply for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, I followed their suggestions and received an NSF Fellowship. As I enter my fourth year of the program, my research centers on the multimodal perception of language and emotion. My advisor, Dr. Lawrence Rosenblum, is not just an expert in multisensory perception, but also an accessible, engaged leader of our lab, who challenges us intellectually and ensures that we are given every opportunity for success. This past year, my fellow graduate student, James Dias, Dr. Rosenblum, and I not only presented at conference, but we also co-authored a book chapter about the McGurk Effect for the Oxford Compendium of Visual Illusions. I can’t imagine a more positive environment than the one Dr. Rosenblum has provided for us as graduate students.

The Psychology Department faculty at UCR are not just highly respected members of their fields; they are also approachable, supportive mentors who genuinely care about their graduate students. They are warm and involved people, in addition to their obvious excellence as researchers. Last but not least, the other graduate students in this department demonstrate an open, supportive, intelligent comradery. Many are accomplished in their own right, yet will unfailingly extend themselves to one another like a family, valuing collaboration not just in research, but in the very fabric of their lives. I am very happy that I chose UCR as the place to get my doctoral degree.


Olga Kozanian — Systems Neuroscience


Olga KozanianI am a second year graduate student working with Dr. Kelly Huffman. Our lab studies the mechanisms involved in neocortical development and regionalization of the neocortex. That being said, I am currently working on my second year project, which focuses on investigating cortical development in normal and sensory deprived young mice. The purpose of this study is centered on my primary interests: examining the interplay between intrinsic and extrinsic mechanisms in development of the neocortical system. One of the advantages of our lab is the variety of techniques we use, including molecular, genetic and neuroanatomical assays to better understand different aspects of the developing and evolving brain.

The systems neuroscience area at UCR offers courses in various concentrations, including statistics, psychology, and neuroscience, in order to set a strong foundation for students with interests in different areas of study. A very important facet pertaining to the professional training of graduate students at UCR is our weekly journal club, where we present and discuss current literature, as well as our own research with other graduate students and faculty. Being given the opportunity to discuss current scientific discoveries and our own data with colleagues, allows students to not only advance their understanding in the field but also conduct innovative and valuable research.

Aside from coursework and the lab bench, I am particularly grateful for the fact that UCR allows graduate students to gain first hand teaching experience at the collegiate level. Allowing graduate students to obtain teaching and teaching assistant positions in a variety of courses including undergraduate statistics, personality psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropharmacology, etc. provides invaluable experience that will without doubt be advantageous when choosing a career in academia.

In general, the support and encouragement offered to students by UCR faculty is unprecedented. Department affiliates are committed to the long-term achievements of the students. I can gladly say that choosing UCR for my doctoral training has proven to be a great decision because I am certain that, regardless of the career path I pursue, I will have the necessary skills and knowledge to be a competitive and successful candidate!


Kristin Layous — Social Personality


Kristin LayousI am a student in the Social/Personality area working with Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky. My decision to come to graduate school was not an easy one, as I left a stable full-time job in a poor economic climate in order to do so. My interest in positive psychology was what drew me to further study and specifically to consider it at UCR, but the attributes of the entire department sealed my final decision to attend. Although the research merits of the faculty at UCR cannot be disputed, the approachability and collegiality of the faculty are what impressed me (and continues to impress me) the most. It is clear that the UCR faculty is truly interested in the success of the students and each other. This supportive tone trickles down to a cooperative learning environment among the graduate students as well. Along with the helpful faculty, the administrative staff that supports the psychology department provides valuable guidance to help graduate students navigate their way through the program. Attending UCR was absolutely the right choice for me to learn and grow as a researcher and teacher.

My research is primarily focused on happiness, specifically seeking answers to the following questions: 1) What leads some people to be happier than others? 2) Under what conditions can people improve their own levels of happiness? and 3) What types of behaviors/conditions forestall adaptation to positive life experiences? I am involved in multiple ongoing projects (either as principal researcher or co-investigator) to address these questions. Three examples are 1) a series of three well-being intervention studies being run simultaneously in the U.S. and South Korea to inform our intervention research as well as potential cross-cultural differences; 2) an experiment with a sample of monozygotic and dizygotic twins in the UK to explore genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in how people respond to happiness-increasing interventions; and 3) a school-based intervention study in which we are exploring the effects of positive activities on 11-year-olds in the UK.

A crucial part of the professional training of graduate students at UCR is the requirement that we present our work each year at our area’s weekly Brown Bag meeting. I am currently working on my second-year project, in which I am examining the role of variety in positive activity interventions (i.e., comparing participants who do two positive activities over the course of 6 weeks to participants who do a single activity or participants who engage in two control activities). My advisor and two faculty committee members will review my paper and the department will have an opportunity to ask me questions during my presentation this spring. This will be a valuable opportunity for me to obtain feedback on my work and presentation skills. I feel that student Brown Bag presentations are a valuable part of graduate student training at UCR and yet another way that the department is invested in our success.

Overall, I cannot imagine faculty, students, or staff more supportive than those at UCR. The caliber of research of the department is apparent, but the positive environment that accompanies the rigorous academic work of the department is what makes me feel fortunate to be pursuing my doctorate at UCR.


Russell Pierce — Cognitive


Russell PierceMy research is concerned with cognitive control processes in the domain of vision (visual attention), memory (working memory), and behavior (dual-task and task-switching). In particular, I am interested in how these topics relate to human performance in real world tasks (human factors), especially in older adults. The coursework at UC Riverside (UCR) has helped me to develop and refine my research interests.

John Andersen, my advisor, has taught me how to develop worthwhile research questions and identify how they apply in various task domains. He has also helped me become aware of the contributions that I can make to the field by expanding my research program to include predictions regarding the performance of older adults. With his guidance I am now performing my dissertation research on investigating the operation of 3D spatial attention in the context of a driving task in younger and older drivers.

The academic culture at UC Riverside is very supportive of graduate student research. Since I enrolled at UCR I have published seven journal articles, five proceedings papers, and eight abstracts.I also applied for and received extramural funding in the form of the University of California Transportation Center fellowship. I am happy with my decision to attend UCR as I can imagine no other academic environment that would have suited me better during this stage of my career.

As I have been productive in research, the department, the graduate school, and my advisor have generously funded me to attend and present at meetings of the Psychonomics Society, Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, Driving Assessment, University of California Transportation Center Student Conference, Society of Computers in Psychology, and Vision Sciences Society. Since UCR has been so generous with me, I have sought to give back whenever I could do so without impeding my research program. In addition to my role as researcher, I have had several other roles including starting the psychology graduate student association, starting the cognitive graduate student forum, serving as an international peer mentor, a graduate peer mentor, a graduate student representative to the department chair, as an ad hoc reviewer for the Cognitive Science Society, and as an ad hoc reviewer for the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. This year I expect to serve as a teaching assistant in graduate statistics, help other graduate students understand how to program in the R language for statistical computing and graphics, and contribute to the formation of a cross-area forum on topics associated with experimental psychology.


Nicholas Shaman — Developmental


Nicholas ShamanI am about to start my fourth year in the developmental area, working with Dr. Rebekah Richert. The psychology department at UC Riverside provides an exceptional training program for graduate students. To start, the psychology department has world-renowned faculty, who are experts in their field. Graduate students are able to learn not just from people who are knowledgeable about topics, but from the researchers who created that knowledge. These very faculty teach the graduate level classes, which are intensive and rewarding. All of the research students read and skills students practice are useful and training for our future careers. Of the many classes available to graduate students, the statistics and methodology courses are of note. These classes have taught me advanced techniques that I have been able to apply and bring my research to the next level.

I feel what separates UCR's graduate program from others is the atmosphere of learning that has been fostered by the faculty. There is a non-competitive and supporting environment for graduate students. Faculty provide seminars and workshops for our professional development, beyond what is required of them. Faculty members are happy to sit and talk with students and help them work through theoretical and methodological ideas. Weekly meetings in all the areas as well as a meeting for statistical/methodological issues are held for students and faculty to discuss in an open forum.

I work with Dr. Richert in the Childhood Cognition Lab. I study children's cognitive development. In particular, I am interested how their religious participation and experience can affect their cognitive development and vice versa, how their normal cognitive development can affect their religious understanding. My second-year project, for which I was awarded a Master's Degree, investigated how children's developing social cognition impacted their understanding of religious rituals. With help from Dr. Richert and the rest of the faculty at UCR, I have been able to further this research. What I find incredibly advantageous about UCR is that I am able to work with Dr. Richert on her research projects and spearhead the creation of my own. My current research projects explore how children's methods of learning about religious rituals and other religious concepts changes how they think about and understand those concepts. Because of the support from UCR and the psychology department, I have been able to present my research findings at multiple conferences and receive funding from multiple sources for my research.

I also feel that my quality of life at UCR is higher than it would be in other graduate programs. The university and the department have made financial support, social support, health-care, and academic resources available for graduate students. Because of this support, I am able to focus my efforts on my research and my career.


Phillip Viera — Systems Neuroscience


Phillip VieraI currently work with Dr. Edward Korzus in the systems neuroscience memory lab. Our lab is studying how neural circuits hold knowledge and guide behavior, as well as relevant neuropathologies that affect memory-guided behavior. My dissertation project focuses on epigenetic regulation of memory consolidation within the hippocampo-prefrontal pathway. Over the past years, I have had the unique privilege of learning a variety of techniques to investigate topical issues in neuroscience, including behavioral assays, biochemistry, confocal microscopy, and electrophysiology.

The systems neuroscience area provides vast opportunities to work with a variety of faculty members within the Psychology department as well as the interdepartmental Neuroscience program. UC Riverside has a distinctive blend of research directions and techniques that supports an unimaginable number of opportunities to conduct high quality neuroscience research. The department is also very supportive when it comes to funding for assistantships, conference travel, and grant applications. We also have an excellent professional development series in our department that prepares graduate students for life during and after graduate school, including grant writing, CV building, job applications, interviewing, and balancing career and personal goals.

UC Riverside is unique amongst R1 universities, as it offers excellent research opportunities with top scientists of the field, while providing personal guidance and ample teaching positions for those who desire it. I definitely feel well prepared to enter the job market upon my pending graduation.