Fall 2018

Meet the Lab: Up and Coming

The Social Neuroscience & Health Lab

APS: Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you study in the Social Neuroscience & Health Lab?

Lab1KAM: Hi, APS community! My name is Keely Muscatell, and I am currently an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I also have an appointment in the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center at UNC. I got my PhD in Psychology from UCLA (social/health areas) and then I completed three years of post-doctoral training at UCSF and UC Berkeley as part of the RWJF Health and Society Scholars program.

My lab, the Carolina Social Neuroscience & Health Lab, is broadly interested in understanding the neural and physiological mechanisms linking social experiences and health. A lot of our work focuses on understanding disparities in mental and physical health, while a related line of research explores how physiological information from the body (e.g., inflammation, autonomic arousal) feeds back to the brain to influence our emotions and social experiences. We use a number of different methods in our work, including those from experimental social psychology, social and affective neuroscience, psychoneuroimmunology, and pharmacology.

APS: Can you give us a sneak peek on the types of questions your lab is tackling in the near future?

KAM: We have a lot of studies I’m really excited about in the works, but I’ll highlight three of them here. The first is a new fMRI study, where we’re looking at how perceptions of economic inequality influence the way the brain responds to risk. The second is using a technique that is new to our lab, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation (tVNS), to stimulate the vagus nerve and examine how this affects psychological and physiological responses to acute social stress. And finally, we’re collaborating with a group of oncologists at the UNC Breast Center and a cognitive neuroscience lab at UNC to try and uncover potential neural biomarkers of risk for chemotherapy-induced cognitive decline (colloquially known as “chemobrain”) in breast cancer patients. That’s just a snapshot of things we’re working on, but I think it nicely illustrates the range of projects going on in our lab!

APS: How is the lab structured?

KAM: As a lab whose research focuses on the pernicious effects of hierarchies, I would say our lab structure is (unsurprisingly) very egalitarian, such that at any given time, the lab’s “resident expert” in a particular research area or methodological technique could be anyone, from our lab manager to a post-doc and anyone in between. We then teach one other what we know by consulting with each other on study design, teaming up for data collection, and helping each other through analyses. I was trained in the tradition of “the best way to really learn something is to try and teach it to someone else,” and I’m trying to apply that philosophy now that I have my own lab. In terms of the nitty-gritty, we have a weekly lab meeting where we practice talks, give feedback on in-prep manuscripts and study ideas, and discuss journal articles; we also have a bi-monthly lab meeting for our undergraduate RAs that focuses mostly on professional development topics that are relevant for them, like how to ask a professor for a letter of recommendation or what the day-to-day life of a grad student is like. I meet with each student/trainee for an hour each week one-on-one to discuss their specific projects/paths as well. We try to get together socially at least once a semester, too; one of my favorite memories so far was when we went to a brewery to watched UNC play in the NCAA basketball tournament during APS in Louisville last year!

APS: Are there any unique aspects of the lab?

KAM: I’d say that one unique aspect of our lab is that we come from very different personal backgrounds in terms of our early-life SES, our racial/ethnic identities, sexual orientations, geographic origins, etc. It’s awesome to be surrounded by such a diverse group of people and I think that diversity serves to inform and expand the types of research questions we are interested in. One other unique thing we do is something I stole from my husband, who is a professor in mathematics. In math, it’s common to have a regular “tea hour” where students and faculty come together to have tea and talk about math in a more informal setting. I loved this tradition so much that I decided we should do it in our lab, so once a week, we have a lab tea time where we get together and talk about whatever - psychology in the news, a research issue someone is struggling with, professional development topics, etc. It’s a nice opportunity for social connection and to chat about research outside of our formal meetings (plus people in my lab bring really good snacks, and our tea collection is getting pretty impressive!).

APS: Now that you have just finished your second year – do you have any advice for junior faculty about setting up a lab?

KAM: Most of what I’ve learned about how to manage life as an assistant professor is wisdom from the Center for Faculty Development and Diversity; I did their “Faculty Success Program” (sometimes called a “new faculty bootcamp”) and I highly recommend it (#notanad), especially if you can pay for it out of your start-up funds. (If you don’t have funds to put toward it, there is a lot of good information in their weekly newsletters as well!) One of the major things I learned was to make sure and write for at least 30-60 minutes per day. While I’d always heard that having a daily writing routine was the best way to be productive, this didn’t really set-in for me before starting my faculty job, at which point I recognized it would be super easy to let my days fill up with teaching prep, student meetings, service responsibilities, keeping up with email, and so on. I’ve found that if I don’t prioritize even a small chunk of time for writing each day, I could go for weeks without writing a thing! I like to do mine first thing in the morning (usually in my PJs with a big mug coffee, which for some reason helps alleviate my imposter syndrome!). That way, even if I’m busy for the rest of the day, at least I’ve written a paragraph on a grant or a paper (or even an IRB application) each day. And 30-60 minutes a day doesn’t sound like a lot, but you’d be surprised how it adds up if you do it consistently. Other than that, my advice is to find yourself a REALLY comfy office chair, as you’re going to spend a lot of time in it.

APS: Your lab seems very committed to engaging in science outreach activities within the community. What is your favorite outreach activity so far?

KAM: Yes - while our research mostly focuses on health disparities, we’re also very aware of the existence of educational disparities across SES strata and racial/ethnic groups (particularly in STEM), so we try and do at least a few small things to bring science to underrepresented communities. Probably our favorite so far is the booth we have every year at the UNC Science Expo, which brings K-12 students from around the state of North Carolina to campus for the day to learn about the exciting research being conducted here. To illustrate our work to the students, we developed two fun activities: The first is a “live” version of the Reading the Mind in the Eyes task, where we created masks that obscure the face to leave only the eyes showing, which we wear and then ask kids to guess what emotion we’re feeling based on only seeing our eyes. They love the idea that they can “read minds”! The other activity teaches them about the mind-body connection: We take their resting blood pressure with an ambulatory monitor, then have them do age-appropriate mental math out loud for a few minutes, and then we re-take their blood pressure. Most of the time it goes up! We also hand out emoji stickers and erasers shaped like brains. It’s really fun to see the kids get into doing the tasks, and is a fun lab bonding event, too!

APS: Tell us a little about your lab.

KAM: Here they are!

Lab2Gabriella M. Alvarez: I am a second-year doctoral student in the Social and Clinical Psychology programs at UNC. Although I primarily work in the Social Neuroscience & Health Lab, I also work in Dr. Mitch Prinstein’s Peer Relations Lab. My research focuses on studying how social contexts affect psychobiological responses to stress using methods from psychoneuroimmunology and affective neuroscience. Ultimately, my work aims to improve our understanding of how the social world sculpts biology, and to reveal the mechanisms underlying socioeconomic and racial health disparities. I received my A.B. in Psychology and Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis in 2015, and following graduation, I completed a post-baccalaureate intramural research training position at the National Institute of Mental Health. In my spare time, I enjoy eating, listening to podcasts, and bonding with my kitten Lillith.

Lab3Samantha N. Brosso: I am the lab manager for the Social Neuroscience & Health Lab. Currently, I manage two studies; one that investigates the neural underpinnings of risky decision making in the context of inequality, and another that examines the physiological contributions to social perceptions and responses to stress, using a novel method, transcutaneous vagus nerve stimulation. Before my position as the lab manager, I graduated with a B.S. in Psychology from UNC Chapel Hill. After my post-bac position, I hope to pursue a PhD in Social Psychology, studying how people’s early life experiences and current social world (i.e. social status, socio-cultural environment, social interactions) impact their brain and stress responses, and in turn, how the organization and function of these biological systems influence the way in which individuals interact with the world around them. In my spare time, I enjoy playing my guitar and writing song lyrics.

Monica M. Gaudier-Diaz: I am a postdoctoral fellow in the Seeding Postdoctoral Innovators in Research and Education (SPIRE) program at UNC, where I work in the SNH Lab. My primary research interest is to understand how environmental factors such as social support and socioeconomic status influence psychological and physiological processes, consequently impacting health and well-being. I contribute my neuroimmunology expertise to all research projects in the SNH Lab, and I also lead a study that investigates physiological and psychological responses to academic stress among first-generation undergraduate students. Upon completing my postdoctoral fellowship, I hope to become a tenure-track faculty member at a primarily undergraduate institution and excel as a neuroscientist who teaches the next generation and serves the community. I completed my B.S. in Biology at the University of Puerto Rico-Mayaguez and my Ph.D. in Neuroscience at The Ohio State University. In my free time, I enjoy spending time with my family, cooking, and listening to music.

Lab4Jennifer K. MacCormack: I’m a sixth-year doctoral trainee in Social Psychology at UNC and work in both the Social Neuroscience & Health Lab and Dr. Kristen Lindquist’s Carolina Affective Science Lab. Psychology and medicine have long recognized the mind’s powerful impact on the body, but I want to champion the reverse direction: how the body bottom-up shapes the mind. For example, my master’s thesis tested how hunger is transformed into feeling “hangry.” I’m building expertise in peripheral psychophysiology, psychoneuroimmunology, social affective neuroscience, and aging to understand the links between allostasis (e.g., gut-brain axis, inflammation, interoception) and social affective processes across the lifespan. I hope to become a tenure-track professor at a research university and build a lab that uses social affective and developmental science to explore the mind-body link. I received my B.A. in Psychology from NC State University in 2013. Before that, I studied Welsh language and literature at Bangor University in North Wales, UK for four years. In an alternate lifepath, I’d be an anthropologist researching cross-cultural differences in the mind-body connection!

Lab5Carrington Merritt: I am a first-year doctoral student at UNC, where I am dually enrolled in the clinical and social program. My primary research interests are in how social conditions influence neural, physiological, and psychological functioning, and thus contribute to the onset, course, and treatment of severe mental illness, specifically schizophrenia. In my graduate studies, I plan to investigate social determinants of schizophrenia pathology, their associations with neurobiological mechanisms underlying schizophrenia risk, and how these associations may vary across socially advantaged and disadvantaged groups. I completed my BA in Psychology at UNC, during which time I was an honors student in the SNH lab. In my spare time, I enjoy running, reading historical fiction novels, and watching stand-up comedy specials on Netflix.

Lab6Rebecca E. Salomon: I am a fourth-year doctoral candidate in the School of Nursing at UNC. My research focuses on a specific subset of depressive symptoms, which we refer to as the psychoneurological symptom cluster in Nursing. For my dissertation, I am looking at whether these symptoms are associated with the chronic situational stress experienced by low-income mothers, as well as whether the symptoms are associated with maternal functioning and child behavior. I hope to follow up this research with an exploration of the biological link between chronic stress and development of symptoms in low-income moms. My long-term research goal is to develop an accessible stress intervention for this dually-vulnerable population of mothers and children. I received my B.A. in Psychology and English at Wellesley College in 2008. After spending time working with children in a variety of settings, including on a biodynamic dairy farm in upstate New York, I attended Vanderbilt University where I received my MSN in Psychiatric Mental Health Nursing across the lifespan. When I'm not wearing my academia hat, I love to garden, cook, and spend time with my wife and daughter.

SNH Lab Photos
At the UNC Science Expo outreach event:
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Our lab:

Watching the Tar Heels play basketball in Louisville during APS last year: Lab10