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Tuesday, August 02, 2011 - Department of Psychology Moves Towards Exciting Changes

As Oakland University (OU) continues to move forward in its strive for excellence, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Psychology is no exception. Over the last year, the department has taken great steps in enriching its programs.

In August 2010, the department announced Dr. Todd Shackelford as its new chairperson. Shackelford is an evolutionary psychologist who conducts research on sexual conflict in humans and on religion from an evolutionary perspective. Raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Shackelford received a bachelor’s degree from the University of New Mexico, a master’s degree from the University of Michigan and a doctoral degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Before coming to OU, Shackelford was a professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University.

As Shackelford made his transition to OU, the Department of Psychology began constructing the foundation for a masters and doctorale program. “It is rare to have the opportunity to build a new graduate program from the ground up, and this opportunity was one of the elements that attracted me to OU,” Shackelford said. Shackelford and the department have been able to build and push the graduate program forward. The program has been approved by the College of Arts and Sciences and is awaiting the University’s approval. It is expected to launch in fall 2012.

The department is also working to grow its faculty. Dr. Cynthia Bennett, new to the department this summer as an adjunct professor, conducts extensive research with animal welfare. As the director of Animal Welfare for the Detroit Zoological Society, Bennett oversees the Center for Zoo Animal Welfare and the Zoo’s welfare program. “While basic care techniques for zoo animals have improved over the last few decades, ensuring the welfare of these animals has only recently emerged as a significant, separate topic of discussion for zoos in the United States,” Bennett explained.

In addition to providing the most current training and knowledge to the animal welfare community, the center is dedicated to conducting applied research on captive animals. “Analysis of existing facilities and how they are working would provide very useful information for those designing or renovating facilities,” said Bennett. Currently the center is conducting three facilities evaluations at the Detroit Zoo; one of these is on the popular polar bear exhibit – Arctic Ring of Life. “After ten years in operation, we are evaluating how each of the polar bears uses the various components of the habitat by simultaneously monitoring behavior and the use of exhibit features,” said Bennett.

Beginning this fall, new faculty member Dr. Jennifer Vonk will similarly bring her comparative animal research to OU. “The basic goal of my research is to examine cognitive processes in non-human species that we believe might be unique to humans, to see whether there are any interesting parallels in other species,” explained Vonk. Vonk is currently working with the Mobile Zoo in Alabama to study the analogical reasoning, numerosity and abstract formation in the American black bears and chimpanzees residing there.

Also to begin working with OU this fall is social-personality psychologist Dr. Virgil Zeigler-Hill. “My primary program of research attempts to gain a better understanding of the implications that self-esteem has for psychological adjustment and interpersonal relations,” explained Zeigler-Hill. Much of his work focuses on the distinction between “secure” and “fragile” forms of high self-esteem. “My recent work has examined the links between ‘fragile’ high self-esteem and outcomes such as poor psychological adjustment, maladaptive social behavior, decision making, and health behaviors such as alcohol consumption,” explained Zeigler-Hill.

The department has, also, recently welcomed Research Associate Professor Dr. Kerry Vachta, the principle investigator and project director for the Child Health Incubator Research Project (CHIRP). Supported by a five-year $4.5 million grant from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture Childhood Obesity Prevention Program, CHIRP is a partnership of seven community-based partners working with OU to explore the role of urban agriculture and food security in promoting health among Detroit children.

“Typical strategies to address childhood obesity presume access to certain resources and information, without regard to culture, economic or social circumstances. In Detroit, we know otherwise. We know our children don’t always have access to what some communities may take for granted and that parents don’t always have the same options,” Vachta explained. “But we also know there are resources here – from urban farms that provide affordable access to fresh organic produce to a plethora of child – centered institutions and extensive community and family support networks. Those resources create an entirely different potential health landscape for Detroit’s children than even many Detroiters are aware of.”

In an effort to promote excellence and productivity in these and other social and behavioral research projects, the psychology, sociology and anthropology, and political science departments came together to establish the Center for Social and Behavioral Research. Approved in April, the center’s objective is to become an interdisciplinary point of contact for researchers to help them identify funding resources, provide guidance, and connect researchers to students and the local community.

“This is an incredibly exciting time for the Department of Psychology,” Shackelford said. “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to lead a department that is making such substantial strides toward excellence on so many different fronts.”

To learn more about the Department of Psychology, visit www.oakland.edu/psychology. Or, to donate to the department, visit www.oakland.edu/donate.