News in Biobehavioral Health (BBH)

Health and Human Development recognizes teaching excellence in BBH

The College of Health and Human Development (HHD) values excellence in teaching. Through a review of Student Rating of Teaching Effectiveness scores, student comments and input from others in HHD, the Teaching Excellence Award recognizes some of our best faculty for their hard work and dedication to undergraduate teaching and learning. Read more.

Department head recognized for contributions to nicotine, tobacco research

The Society for Research on Nicotine & Tobacco (SRNT) has named Thomas J. Gould, Jean Phillips Shibley Professor and head of the Department of Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development at Penn State, as an inaugural fellow in recognition of his contributions to nicotine research.

Previously, Gould served as president and chair of the professional association that supports those working across disciplines in the field of nicotine and tobacco research. His research focuses on nicotine addiction and understanding the contribution of genetics to changes in brain and behavior after nicotine exposure. He investigates the long-term impact of developmental nicotine exposure on brain and behavior, primarily examining changes in learning-related processes and in underlying brain regions. Additionally, he seeks to understand the comorbidity between nicotine exposure and anxiety disorders.

Read more about Gould and his role with the SRNT.

Jodi Heaton receives Carol Clark Ford Staff Achievement Award

Jodi Heaton, administrative support coordinator for the Department of Biobehavioral Health, received the 2014 Carol Clark Ford Staff Achievement Award during the College's Faculty and Staff Awards reception, held Nov. 13 at the Bennett Pierce Living Center.

Heaton’s duties include supervising departmental staff, serving as administrative assistant to the Biomarker Core Laboratory, overseeing general and research budgets for the department, and working with the department head to plan the yearly departmental budget. She joined biobehavioral health in 1992.

This award recognizes outstanding achievement by a staff, clerical, or technical service employee of the college who “makes it easier for others to accomplish their objectives effectively and efficiently.” The award was endowed by Donald H. Ford, dean emeritus of the former College of Human Development, in honor of his wife Carol Clark Ford.

See all 2014 Faculty and Staff Award recipients.

Creating solutions together: Students in BBH and IST team up for this semester's mHealth Challenge

Drawing on personal experiences with real-world problems, students in the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH) and the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) are putting their heads together to create mobile technologies that advance health and well-being.

As part of Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) this semester, students in BBH and IST will participate in mHealth, a challenge that allows undergraduate students to work in cross-discipline teams to mock-up a mobile health application that addresses a societal health need associated with a specific targeted audience. The event is scheduled for Nov. 17.

Read more about mHealth, which is scheduled for Nov. 17.

Researchers' study featured in Brain, Behavior and Immunity journal

A study by researchers in HHD has been published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, the official journal of the Psychoneuroimmunology Research Society.

The study, titled, “Daily positive events and inflammation: Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences,” suggests that positive aspects of everyday life may accumulate over time to protect against inflammation and promote long-term health. Researchers include Nancy Sin, postdoctoral fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging and the department of biobehavioral health; Jennifer Graham-Engeland, associate professor of biobehavioral health; and David Almeida, professor of human development and family studies.

“In this study, we found that daily positive events were associated with lower levels of inflammation,” Sin said. “Previous research has shown that negative psychological states, such as stress and depression, are linked to elevated inflammation, which increases the risk of chronic diseases and death. We were interested in whether daily experiences of positive events could protect against inflammation.”

Read more about the study by researchers in HHD.

Biobehavioral health student receives predoctoral Ford Foundation Fellowship

Francisco Alejandro "Alex" Montiel-Ishino, a predoctoral student in Penn State’s Department of Biobehavioral Health, is a recipient of a 2014 Ford Fellowship by the Ford Foundation Fellowship Program.

Francisco Alejandro

In 2014, the Ford Fellowship program has awarded approximately 60 predoctoral fellowships. The predoctoral fellowships provide three years of support for individuals engaged in graduate study leading to a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) or doctor of science (Sc.D.) degree. Predoctoral fellowships will be awarded in a national competition administered by the National Research Council on behalf of the Ford Foundation. The awards will be made to individuals who, in the judgment of the review panels, have demonstrated superior academic achievement, are committed to a career in teaching and research at the college or university level, show promise of future achievement as scholars and teachers, and are well prepared to use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.

Montiel-Ishino’s fellowship was awarded for his idea concerning Paraoxonase 1 (PON1). The project is titled, “PON1 gene expression feasibility study in Mexican migrant farmworker children exposed to organophosphate pesticides: The embodiment of environmental insults and social injustice.”

Read more about Francisco Alejandro "Alex" Montiel-Ishino's Ford Foundation Fellowship.

Research project results in evidence that adult daycare eases stress on dementia caregivers

The stress of caring for a family member with dementia may take a toll on health over time, but a new study suggests that even one day off can shift caregivers’ stress levels back toward normal. Read about the study published in The Gerontologist, "Anticipating an Easier Day: Effects of Adult Day Services on Daily Cortisol and Stress," led by Laura Cousino Klein.

Pistachios may lower vascular response to stress in Type 2 diabetes


Among people with type 2 diabetes, eating pistachios may reduce the body's response to the stresses of everyday life, according to Penn State researchers.

"In adults with diabetes, two servings of pistachios per day lowered vascular constriction during stress and improved neural control of the heart," said Sheila G. West, professor of biobehavioral health and nutritional sciences.

"Although nuts are high in fat, they contain good fats, fiber, potassium and antioxidants. Given the high risk of heart disease in people with diabetes, nuts are an important component of a heart healthy diet in this population."

West and her colleagues investigated the effects of pistachios on responses to standardized stress tasks in patients with well-controlled Type 2 diabetes who were otherwise healthy. They used a randomized, crossover study design in which all meals were provided. Each of the diets contained the same number of calories.

After two weeks on the typical American diet—containing 36 percent fat and 12 percent saturated fats—participants were randomized to one of two test diets. During the four-week test diets, participants ate only food supplied by the study. The researchers reported the results of this study in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Heart Association.

Read more about how pistachios may lower vascular response to stress in Type 2 diabetes.

Biobehavioral Health students participate in mHealth Challenge

mHealth Challenge - Spring 2014

Six teams participated in the Spring 2014 mHealth Challenge.

Undergraduates win awards at research exhibition

Three health and human development undergraduate students have received awards for the posters they presented on their research at the 2013 Undergraduate Exhibition.

Kayla Wu, a health policy and administration major, won first place in the social and behavioral sciences category for her poster, titled "From the United States to Hong Kong: Global Role of Safety Leadership."

Jennifer Valdivia Espino, a biobehavioral health major, won honorable mention in the health and life sciences category for her poster, titled "Development of a Hispanic/Latino Healthy Eating Workbook Employing FNS Core Preschool Child-Feeding Messages."

Charlotte Bahnfleth, a nutritional sciences major, also won honorable mention in the health and life sciences category for her poster, titled "Long-Term Effects of Micronutrient Supplementation on School-Age Child Behavior."

Penn State Professors Create Fund to Support Graduate Students

Penn State Professors Elizabeth J. Susman and Gerald I. Susman have created two new endowments to support graduate students in the College of Health and Human Development and the Smeal College of Business, their respective colleges.

The Gerald I. Susman Enhancement Fund in the Department of Management and Organization in the Smeal College of Business and the Elizabeth J. Susman Enhancement Fund in Biobehavioral Health in the College of Health and Human Development will provide annual support for graduate students in the academic departments where the Susmans have spent their distinguished academic careers. Read more about the Susman endowments >>

Robert Turrisi honored by MADD for research-based national programs

Robert Turrisi, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, has received the Ralph Hingson Researcher of the Year Award from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) for his high school-level parenting intervention that has become the centerpiece of MADD’s national-level prevention effort, known as the “Power of Parents.” More >>

Why do we get old? Roger McCarter explores various hypotheses of aging in 2012 Schmitt Russell Research Lecture, "The Immortal Lives of Hypotheses on Aging"

Dr. Roger McCarter

Roger McCarter, professor of biobehavioral health, will present the 2012 Schmitt Russell Research Lecture. His lecture, “The Immortal Lives of Hypotheses on Aging,” will be given at 4:00 p.m., Tuesday, September 18, in the Bennett Pierce Living Center, 110 Henderson Building. The event, sponsored by the College of Health and Human Development, is free and open to the public.

The title of McCarter's talk is influenced by the Rebecca Skloot book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," which chronicles how Lacks' cancer cells were harvested by researchers in the 1950s and have been kept alive for research ever since.

"Just like Lacks' cells, there are theories and hypotheses of aging that are never thoroughly proven or rejected but come back into favor again and again," said McCarter. "My talk will discuss the various theories and hypotheses of aging that have been proposed and provide an assessment, based on my own research results, of their validity." more >>

John Graham publishes book on the problem of missing data in research

book coverWhat's a researcher to do when, halfway through her study, several participants drop out, citing changes to their health status or their availability? Missing data have long plagued those conducting applied research in the social, behavioral, and health sciences, but while good missing-data analysis solutions are available, practical information about implementation of these solutions has been lacking. In a new book titled "Missing Data: Analysis and Design," John Graham, Penn State professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies, offers practical information to researchers who are not statisticians to implement modern missing-data procedures properly in their research, and to reap the benefits in terms of improved accuracy and statistical power. More >>

Penn State offers online HIV/AIDS education programs

After 30 years since its discovery, more than 1 million U.S. adults and adolescents are living with HIV. Annually, about 50,000 more Americans become infected. Yet there is a sense of complacency and continuing stigma surrounding this epidemic. Along with new developments, including the first approved drug to prevent HIV infection and first in-home HIV test, education plays a critical role in combating the spread of HIV, especially among the young. To help the education effort, Penn State is offering a new series of online HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs. "We want to make the most current information about HIV/AIDS as accessible and convenient as possible for the professionals who provide sexual and health-promoting information to young people and others," said Patricia Barthalow Koch, professor of biobehavioral health in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development. Koch also is faculty director of the Pennsylvania Learning Academy for Sexuality Education (PLASE), which offers these programs. more>>

Exposure to violence has long-term stress effects among adolescents

Children who are exposed to community violence continue to exhibit a physical stress response up to a year after the exposure, suggesting that exposure to violence may have long-term negative health consequences, according researchers at Penn State and University College London. "We know that exposure to violence is linked with aggression, depression, post-traumatic stress symptoms and academic and cognitive difficulties in the short term, but little is known about the long-term effects of such exposure," said Elizabeth Susman, Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Penn State. "Our data show that the stress reaction to violence exposure is not just immediate. There's an effect that endures." more>>

Robert Turrisi Receives Prevention Science Award

Robert Turrisi, professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State, has received the 2012 Prevention Science Award from the Society for Prevention Research. The award is given to an individual or team of individuals for producing a significant body of research that applies scientific methods to test one or more preventive interventions or policies. Turrisi will be presented with the award on May 31, 2012, at the society’s annual conference in Washington, D.C.

Turrisi—who is also a faculty member in the Penn State Prevention Research Center for the Promotion of Human Development and the Children, Youth and Families Consortium—is committed to reducing risky behaviors in adolescents, teens and college students. His research on skin cancer and alcohol abuse prevention has not only fostered increased communication within families, but also has provided a dataset that can serve as the evidential backbone of prevention programs. more >>

Being ignored online or in person, it's still exclusion

People who are excluded by others online, such as on Facebook, may feel just as bad as if they had been excluded in person, according to researchers at Penn State and Misericordia University.

"If you've ever felt bad about being 'ignored' on Facebook you're not alone," said Joshua Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and of medicine at Penn State. "Facebook — with its approximately 800 million users— serves as a place to forge social connections; however, it is often a way to exclude others without the awkwardness of a face-to-face interaction. Most people would probably expect that being ignored or rejected via a remote source like the Internet would not hurt as much as being rejected in person. Yet, our studies show that people may experience similar psychological reactions to online exclusion as they do with face-to-face exclusion." more >>

Parents Report Gluten-, Casein-Free Diet May Help Some Children With Autism

A gluten-free, casein-free diet may lead to improvements in behavior and physiological symptoms in some children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to researchers at Penn State. The research is the first to use survey data from parents to document the effectiveness of a gluten-free, casein-free diet on children with ASD.

"Research has shown that children with ASD commonly have GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms," said Christine Pennesi, medical student at Penn State College of Medicine. "Notably, a greater proportion of our study population reported GI and allergy symptoms than what is seen in the general pediatric population. Some experts have suggested that gluten- and casein-derived peptides cause an immune response in children with ASD, and others have proposed that the peptides could trigger GI symptoms and behavioral problems."

The team — which included Laura Cousino Klein, associate professor of biobehavioral health and human development and family studies — asked 387 parents or primary caregivers of children with ASD to complete a 90-item online survey about their children's GI symptoms, food allergy diagnoses, and suspected food sensitivities, as well as their children's degree of adherence to a gluten-free, casein-free diet. The team's results appeared online this month in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience. more >>

Research summary highlights the health impact of comparing oneself to others

If you’ve ever looked at another person and thought, “well, at least I’m doing better than he is,” or “wow, I wish I could be doing as well as she is,” you’re not alone. This phenomenon, called social comparison, is common in daily life, and it is the topic of a research summary that suggests that making such comparisons could influence people's physical and emotional health. Proposed in the 1950s, the original theory of social comparison states that individuals are driven to evaluate themselves against others under conditions of uncertainty. “People compare themselves to others with respect to all kinds of life domains — wealth, appearance, achievement,” said Josh Smyth, professor of biobehavioral health and of medicine, Penn State. more >>

Smoking Cessation Program Plus Physical Activity May Curb Teen Smoking

A study by researchers at Penn State and West Virginia University shows that adding physical activity to tobacco cessation programs for teens may enhance cessation success. The study will be published in the October 2011 issue of Pediatrics.

“It is no secret that West Virginia has one of the nation’s worst smoking problems, said Steven Branstetter, an assistant professor of biobehavioral health and an author on the paper. “In fact, there are some counties in West Virginia that have a smoking rate approaching 50 percent. This study shows that youth can quit smoking—even in an area with a higher than average smoking rate—given the right tools.”

The 233 teens in the study were regular daily smokers, smoking about half of a pack a day during the week and up to a pack on weekends, and they were addicted. Most started smoking around age 11. The researchers assigned randomly selected West Virginia high schools with more than 300 students to brief intervention programs, the teen-cessation program Not on Tobacco (N-O-T), or the N-O-T program plus physical activity (N-O-T program + FIT). N-O-T was developed at West Virginia University. >>Read more

Faculty member named fellow of AAAS

Dr. Gerald McClearn, Evan Pugh Professor of Health and Human Development and Biobehavioral Health, is one of eight Penn State faculty members named fellows of the American Association of the Advancement of Science (AAAS). AAAS is the world's largest general scientific society and the publisher of the journal Science. McClearn was honored for distinguished contributions in research exploring the interaction of genetic and environmental factors in behavior and aging. >>Read more.

Penn State researcher investigates how consuming less calories can lead to longer life

If you ask Penn State researcher Dr. Roger McCarter how to live longer, he’ll give you one piece of advice: consume fewer calories. McCarter has shown this in rat and mouse models, and other researchers have duplicated this in spiders, yeast, worms, and humans. To fully take advantage of caloric restriction, McCarter, a professor of biobehavioral health, and several other researchers around the world are trying to understand why eating less can lengthen a life span. >>Read more.

Penn State researcher selected for Kaiser minority leadership program

Dr. Shedra Amy Snipes, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, is one of six researchers across the country selected to participate in the newly established Kaiser Permanente Burch Minority Leadership Development Awards Program. The program supports junior minority researchers with two-year leadership development awards. >>Read more

Celebration Scheduled — 20 years of Biobehavioral Health

'Forging our Future, Celebrating our Past'

We invite you to join us for a grand celebration weekend that will highlight the accomplishments of the Department of Biobehavioral Health. Spend time with faculty and former and current students and hear presentations from former students and current faculty and prominent leaders in the field of BBH.

Event Details

  • May 6 and 7, 2011
  • The Nittany Lion Inn, University Park campus

For More Information

Contact Lisa Grove (814-863-7256 or or Dr. Elizabeth Susman (814-863-2281 or

Professor teams up with MADD to fight underage drinking

Penn State researcher Dr. Rob Turrisi is lending a hand to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in a new campaign called Power of Parents, It’s Your Influence, the goal of which is to prevent underage drinking and drunk driving. >>Read more.

Researchers combine knowledge to understand stress, heart disease

Stress and its role in heart disease was the focus of a one-day conference developed by Dr. William Gerin, professor of biobehavioral health. >>Read more.

Walnuts, walnut oil improve reaction to stress

A diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may prepare the body to deal better with stress, according to a team of Penn State researchers who looked at how these foods, which contain polyunsaturated fats, influence blood pressure at rest and under stress. >>Read more.

New minor aims to prepare students for careers in global health

Beginning fall 2010, Penn State is offering a new minor, Global Health (GLBHL), which is designed to provide undergraduate students with a multidisciplinary background in the issues affecting the health of populations in various countries and regions of the world. The minor is being offered through the Department of Biobehavioral Health. >>Read more.

For many young adults, pain, alcohol/medication use disrupt sleep

Many young adults who appear healthy are plagued by sleep issues at night, according to a new Penn State study. The study, led by Dr. Jennifer Graham, assistant professor of biobehavioral health, found chronic pain and use of alcohol or medications among the leading factors contributing to sleep disruptions for those in the study. >>Read more.

Earlier, later puberty may trigger aggression in boys

Puberty that arrives earlier or later in adolescent boys relative to their peers can trigger chemicals that are related to antisocial behavior, according to researchers, whose findings have key implications for parents with aggressive boys. Dr. Elizabeth J. Susman, the Jean Phillips Shibley Professor of Biobehavioral Health, and her colleagues looked at how the timing of puberty affects cortisol, a stress hormone, and salivary alpha amylase, an enzyme in saliva used as indicator of stress. >>Read more.

Knowledge is Power in New Blood Pressure Study at Penn State

Penn State researchers have revived the age-old slogan “knowledge is power” for a new study focused on helping people manage high blood pressure. The project, spearheaded by Dr. William Gerin, professor of biobehavioral health, and Dr. Chris Sciamanna, division chief of general internal medicine at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, received $1.5 million from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. >>Read more.

Stress Hormone, Depression Trigger Obesity in Girls

Depression raises stress hormone levels in adolescent boys and girls but may lead to obesity only in girls, according to researchers. Early treatment of depression could help reduce stress and control obesity—a major health issue. "This is the first time cortisol reactivity has been identified as a mediator between depressed mood and obesity in girls," said Dr. Elizabeth J. Susman, the Jean Phillips Shibley professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State. >>Read more.

Students Broaden Ethical Outlooks in Biobehavioral Health Course

Dr. Byron Jones starts his class off each semester by having his students read creation stories and myths: Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek Gods, Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge in Eden. This isn’t a comparative literature or a religious studies course, though. For Jones, the meaning of these stories lies in their ethical implications: whether or not pursuing knowledge is natural, and if so, are our current pursuits ethically sound? >>Read more.

Professor Receives Distinguished Gerontology Award

The Gerontological Society of America presented Dr. Gerald McClearn, Evan Pugh Professor of Health and Human Development, with its Robert W. Kleemeier Award. The award is given annually to a member of GSA in recognition for outstanding research in the field of gerontology, and the winner of the award also presents a lecture at GSA's annual meeting the following year. >>Read more.