individual portraits of three people: Eve De Rosa, Cindy Hazan, and Qi Wang set on an abstract patterned white background
Jan 20, 2023
Sheri Hall
In College of Human Ecology, Psychology

Three Human Ecology faculty members received endowed professorships this fall, supporting excellence in undergraduate teaching and innovative research in two areas: the connection between our physical health and cognitive aging, and how memory influences our thought patterns and well-being.

“I am incredibly appreciative of the generous donors who funded these endowed professorships, allowing us to honor some of our most respected and influential faculty members,” said Rachel Dunifon, the Rebecca Q. and James C. Morgan Dean of the College of Human Ecology.

Eve DeRosa was named the Mibs Martin Follett Professor in the Department of Psychology. The professorship was established this fall by Don Follett ’52, in memory of his wife, Mibs Martin Follet ’51 who was a food and nutrition management major in Human Ecology.

DeRosa also serves as Cornell’s Dean of Faculty, the first woman and person of color elected to the position, and the College of Human Ecology’s Dean’s Fellow for Racial and Social Justice.

DeRosa and psychology professor Adam Anderson run the Affect & Cognition Lab, where they are currently studying how the body — specifically physiological signals in the heart — and brain interact to influence cognitive health later in life. Their research is related to the parasympathetic nervous system, especially the vagus nerve, which controls involuntary bodily functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and digestion.

The research, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health, has identified a connection between cardiac variability — small differences in the cadence of one’s heartbeat — and cognitive impairment in both rats and humans. Early results have confirmed their hypothesis: Lower cardiac variability, or a more evenly spaced heart rate, signals a decline in cognitive function; higher cardiac variability leads to better cognitive function.

The team is now taking their research a step further to determine how to improve cognitive function. “We believe that stimulating the vagus nerve will increase heart rate variability and improve cognitive function,” DeRosa said.

Exercise is one way to activate this system, DeRosa said. Her laboratory is also testing a deep breathing exercise, asking participants to take six slows breaths a minute for two minutes. They are finding that just two minutes of deep breathing increases cardiac variability and improves participants’ performance “It’s a positive intervention that we believe can improve your mental and cognitive health,” she said.

Qi Wang was named the Joan K. and Irwin M. Jacobs Professor in the Department of Psychology. Wang describes her research as broadly the study of “mental time travel.” The professorship was established by longtime Cornell benefactors Joan Klein Jacobs ’54 and Irwin Mark Jacobs ’54 as part of a $10 million commitment to the college in 2014.

“I am interested in how people remember what happened in the past and how that is related to their anticipations and plans about the future,” she said. “I’m also very interested in cultural influences on mental time travel in relation to well-being.”

One of Wang’s current studies takes a careful look at how people remember experiences from a historical period (e.g., during a war or natural disaster) and how that influences their thoughts and feelings. The lockdowns at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic provided her laboratory an ideal scenario to study this phenomenon.

“We have found that how we think about those early days of COVID-19 — how we construe those experiences — influences our psychological well-being,” she said. “We all shared similar experiences such as social distancing and the related anxiety, but some people just have a more positive outlook on what happened.”

Wang used statistical analysis to factor out differences in income and experience, such as the level of COVID severity in the participants’ residential area and the amount of daily social interactions participants had with others during the lockdown. “After factoring everything out, we found that people who had a more positive appraisal of their experiences— who remembered more positive relative to negative events from the outbreak of the pandemic — showed better psychological well-being.”

The study also looks at ethnic differences in how people remember the early days of the pandemic. She found that African- and Asian-Americans were more likely to recall positive experiences during the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic compared with white Americans.

“We suspect that this is related to the nature of our relationships,” she said. “African- and Asian-Americans have relationships more defined by social roles and family ties, which would be less likely to be stressed by social distancing. In the Western culture, there’s greater relational mobility, meaning that relationships tend to change more freely. This means those relationships would be more strained by social distancing.”

Psychology Professor Cindy Hazan was awarded the Andrew H. & James S. Tisch Distinguished University Professorship, an endowment established in 2002 to support senior faculty members focused on excellent undergraduate education.

Hazan, an expert in the psychology of human relationships, teaches the hugely popular HD 3620: Human Bonding.

She began teaching the class when she arrived at Cornell in 1988; the first year, 25 students enrolled. “We went from 25 students the first year to 250 the next year,” she said. “And the class has just kept growing. I know, though, that the success of the course is not about me but rather the topics.  During several sabbatical leaves it has been taught by my graduate students and equally well-received.”

The class has no prerequisites, so it is filled with students from across Cornell University. Hazan says a comment from an undergraduate student helps to explain why the class is so popular: “It’s so great to be getting credit for thinking about the things I’m thinking about all the time anyway,” the student said.

But her secret may lie more in her teaching style. Hazan recalls participating in a dissertation project for a Cornell education student in the early 1990’s, who analyzed the teaching methods of five Cornell professors.  Her goal was to derive a cognitive map of each faculty member’s implicit teaching style. ”She made me watch videotapes of my lectures, which was not fun.  And she asked penetrating questions every time she paused the tape.  Why did you say or do that?  In the end, it was amusing to learn that as a relationship scientist my intuitive teaching method is to develop a relationship with the class.”

Hazan served as the first Carl Becker Professor and Dean for six years, an experience she credits with multiple life-changing experiences: “I met so many amazing faculty and staff members of the Cornell community with whom I otherwise would not have crossed paths.  I gained greater appreciation of the multitude of challenges our students face in addition to their course requirements. I got introduced to and enjoyed a long-term involvement with the Cornell Prison Education Program. Those years were a highlight of my experience as a member of the Cornell faculty.”