Strategic Academic Research Trajectory Package (START)
Merrimack’s Agenda for the Future calls on the College to grow the number of faculty members engaged in sponsored research and research activities. The Office of the Provost, in alignment with the AFF, is dedicated to offering faculty support in ways best suited to their strengths, interests, and abilities.
To support our research goals, the Office of the Provost has established a dedicated pool of funding to support faculty research, through the offering of a Strategic Academic Research Trajectory (START) Package to qualified and motivated faculty.
Meet Cohort 3
Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Adaptive Risk-Taking Behavior in Preschool-Aged Children
Amanda Cremone-Caira, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Psychology
Dr. Amanda Cremone-Caira’s research investigates the relationship between risk-taking behaviors, cultural risk management, and developmental trajectories in early childhood.
She is particularly interested in how appropriate risk-taking is associated with improved social and learning behaviors. She is currently developing an NIH R15 proposal to integrate student research assistants into a project examining the bidirectional effects of risk-taking tendencies on adaptive and maladaptive phenotypes in preschool-aged children.
A Contextual Examination of the Relationship Between Sport Fandom and Physical Health
Aaron Mansfield, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sports Management
The purpose of Dr. Mansfield’s study is to clarify the relationship between sport fandom and healthy lifestyle behaviors and to provide evidence-based recommendations to both sport organizations and consumers.
What are the contextual circumstances in which fandom benefits and harms consumers’ health and well-being? To engage with this question theoretically, Mansfield plans to leverage the social identity approach to health and well-being (see Jetten et al., 2017); social identity theory is the most common framework for understanding committed sport consumers.
Acceptability, Feasibility, and Preliminary Efficacy of Motivational Interviewing to Reduce Depression and Cardiovascular Disease Risk and Increase Exercise in Young Black Men with HIV Who Have Sex with Men
Nicholas SantaBarbara, Ph.D., Assistant Professor
Approximately 1.2 million people are living with HIV in the United States with about 40,000 new diagnoses each year. Of these new diagnoses, roughly 45% are seen in young black men with HIV who have sex with men (YBMSM) although they comprise only 12% of the population.
Using user-centered (UX) design methodologies, Dr. SantaBarbara will iteratively refine the proposed MI content and intervention design in collaboration with YBMSM (n=~20). He will then test the newly designed intervention and assess its feasibility, acceptability, and potential efficacy compared to a time-matched contact control in a randomized pilot study (n=30).
The FeMSLeeP study: Field-based Study of Menstrual Cycle Phase on Sleep, Light Exposure, and Performance in Young Women
Melissa St. Hilaire, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Data Sciences
Historically, women have been underrepresented in clinical research, due partly to concerns about the effect of fluctuating hormone levels across the menstrual cycle on clinical outcomes of interest. We will test for differences in sleep, environmental light exposure, neurobehavioral performance and circadian rhythms between the follicular and luteal phases of the menstrual cycle, and between naturally cycling
women and women on hormonal medications. The results of this study are expected to provide
important preliminary data for developing a larger study focused on interventions that reduce menstrual cycle effects on sleep, circadian rhythms, and performance.
She is an accomplished early-stage investigator who recently served as PI on an NIH-funded R21 as well as a NASA-funded Omnibus award, and currently serves as PI on NIH-funded R01 and R03 awards. She also serves as co-I on a number of federally funded studies. Her role in START will be running a pilot clinical trial to collect data in advance of another NIH R01 submission, and through which provide mentorship to other faculty members.
Exploring the Effectiveness of Peer Health Coaching on Wellness Among College Students: A Randomized Intervention
Zi Yan, Ph.D., Professor of Nutrition and Public Health
Dr. Yan recently completed a randomized controlled trial of a new peer-health coaching program for undergraduate students. This program is innovative, in that it combines a health coaching certification program for Merrimack students with delivery of the health coaching intervention, which showed preliminary effectiveness in improving several health behaviors in the students who took part.
Dr. Yan will be using her time in START to develop an NIH R15 proposal for a larger trial of the intervention which will integrate student learning and research experiences.
Communicating to Combat Health and Science (Mis)information in Alternative Health Social Media Groups
Melissa “Mish” Zimdars, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Communication and Media
Dr. Melissa “Mish” Zimdars’ study is an ongoing research collaboration looking at alternative health groups on Facebook. These online spaces contain a mixture of alternative health information, health misinformation, and both vaccine skepticism and fully anti-vaccine views.
In order to develop more effective health interventions into online health misinformation (and into anti-vaccine misinformation, specially), we need to better understand the people in spaces where that misinformation thrives as well as how social media platforms, sociocultural and political contexts, etc. create favorable conditions for that misinformation to thrive.
Meet Cohort 2
The Merrimack College Astronomical Research Group
Christopher Duston, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Physics
Dr. Chris Duston is a theoretical and mathematical physicist, with primary research interests in classical and quantum gravity, noncommutative geometry, gauge theory, and high energy physics.
His START research builds on prior grant proposals to collect additional data that will allow the differentiation of supernovae type IA formation scenarios, and determine the period structure of cataclysmic variable stars. He runs the The Merrimack College Astronomical Research Group, which employs undergraduate research assistants to collect data using Merrimack’s telescope observatory.
The Spatial Dynamics of Embodied Social Sensemaking
Christian Kronsted, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Practice in Philosophy
Dr. Christian Kronsted’s research operates in the interdisciplinary space of philosophy, cognitive science, and aesthetics.
His current work through the START program looks at group role formation within creative group work, and investigates how movement and space impacts the formation of various cognitive roles and the creative process. With the help of undergraduate research assistants, he has developed a motion capture technique that tracks group relationships from a top-down perspective.
Investigating Microplastics in Surface Waters
William McDowell, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology
Dr. Bill McDowell’s START project tackles the topic of microplastics, which are found almost everywhere in our environment. His research is particularly interested in identifying new methods for detecting and quantifying microplastics in waterways, as well as determining the extent of microplastic pollution so that it can be appropriately remediated and prevented.
Dr. McDowell’s research involves Biology graduate and undergraduate students in sampling at sites throughout the Merrimack Valley.
Phytotechnology for a Healthier Environment
Azam Noori, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology
Dr. Azam Noori’s START project is focused on understanding how specific species of plants are able to process environmental pollutants such as heavy metals, and remove them from the environment where they are harmful.
This work has applications in the remediation of former and current industrial sites, including many in the Merrimack Valley. She was recently awarded an NSF Grant for her project entitled “The Translocation Mechanism of Nanomaterials in Plants”.
Capturing Novice Teachers’ Racial Literacy: An External Replication Project
Lisa O’Brien, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Education
Dr. Lisa O’Brien investigates ways to provide all children equitable opportunities for learning and supporting families and teachers in understanding and implementing these practices.
This work includes examining ways to leverage educational resources. Her START project will validate a new instrument, Knowledge of Teachers’ Racial Literacy (KoRaL), which she created to understand and improve teachers’ racial literacy, and will be used in a larger study potentially funded by the Institute for Educational Sciences (IES).
Catch Up With Cohort 1
This project is focused on developing strategies to support and evaluate student achievement of non-cognitive chemistry program outcomes, with the ultimate goal of improving inclusivity and student retention in STEM fields. Women, BIPOC, neuro-diverse, and first generation students remain under-represented in STEM disciplines. Students are more likely to persist in STEM disciplines if they have a strong STEM self-identity, which leads to them putting in the work necessary to succeed in STEM work, thereby allowing them to develop the STEM self-efficacy necessary to persist and become STEM professionals. Strategies used to promote student sense of belonging include exploration of the positive societal impacts of science, engagement in collaborative group-work, and development of applied laboratory skills. For example, students in Dr. Baldock’s CHM 3410 Analytical Chemistry laboratory course analyzed the heavy metal content of commercial baby food using microwave-assisted acid digestion and inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Baldock is preparing to submit a $400K grant proposal entitled ” Inclusive Learning in the STEM Gateway: Development of Practical Laboratory Skills Assessment Tools for Foundational Chemistry Courses” to the NSF IUSE Program (solicitation 23-510) in January 2024.
This research project explores the cognitive impacts of an Intergenerational Program on Preschoolers and Older Adults. Recent research has shown marked effects on cognitive development in children born during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as cognitive decline in older adults as a consequence of the pandemic. During phase I of the proposed study, older adults will be paired with Merrimack College students. Together, they will create a children’s book using events from the older adult’s life. Findings from this pilot study will be used to establish the feasibility of and need for intergenerational programs that act as a protective barrier for cognitive decline that was augmented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given that both sleep disruption and mild traumatic brain injury (mTB) can impact executive control of emotion regulation, it is possible that improving sleep quality may reduce the emotion dysregulation associated with mTBI; therefore, sleep extension may be an accessible and effective way to improve some of the common symptoms associated with mTBIs. As the prevalence of mTBI is extremely high, it is critical to determine ways to mitigate impairments. Reducing emotion dysregulation could alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns in individuals with a mTBI.
Napping has been shown to impact emotional memory consolidation and emotional reactivity, and to increase frustration tolerance in adults. To date, however, the role of napping in adult emotion regulation has yet to be determined. Additionally, no research has examined the role of napping in emotion regulation of mTBI individuals. To address these critical gaps, we aim to examine the preliminary efficacy of a mid-day nap to improve emotion regulation in neurologically healthy individuals, and to examine the impact of mTBI on top-down control of emotion regulation, and to examine whether a mid-day nap alters this relationship. A grant application has been submitted to the National Institutes of Health, Research Enhancement Award Program (REAP) for Health Professional Schools and Graduate Schools (R15 Clinical Trial Required) in the amount of $416,954.00.
Families experiencing the double burden of food insecurity and pediatric obesity face unique stressors that impact healthy parental feeding practices, especially when they lack social support. Yet these practices are critical for improving children’s diets, preventing excess weight gain for children with overweight/obesity and for decreasing risk for subsequent nutrition-related chronic disease. Checklists and social support may efficiently support parent’s development of healthy feeding practices, decrease
stress, and provide parents with culturally-relevant local food resources, maximizing impact on health equity and cost-effectiveness.
The goal of the Checklist for Obesity risk reduction through family MEals and peeR support (COMER) study is to deliver a theory-based, scalable checklist + social support (CK+SS) intervention to families (n=40) for a feasibility and preliminary efficacy study. A grant application has been submitted to the National Institutes of Health, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child, Health and Human Development in the amount of $224,552.00.
Law enforcement officer (LEO) health and wellness is highly impactful for the retention of effective, diverse agencies and for providing high quality, procedurally just service to the community. Despite basic law enforcement training (BLET) reform efforts, the policing profession continues to have high rates of poor physical and mental health, including injuries and suicidality, which are associated with low retention, dissatisfactory job performance, and misconduct. To address this gap, Merrimack College, in partnership with the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee (MPTC), will assess health and wellness training in Massachusetts. This study will be interdisciplinary—including criminology, exercise science, sleep, nutrition, and mental health—and practitioner-centered, with research objectives, data collection plans, and dissemination strategies developed in partnership with the MPTC. A grant application to the National Institute of Justice in the amount of $999,835.00 has been submitted to further support this research endeavor.