Human Ecology's Future

By: Stephen D'Angelo,  College of Human Ecology, Human Development
Wed, 01/02/2019

Surge of new faculty hires sign of vibrancy, excitement as College grows

During the 2018-2019 academic year, 15 new faculty members will be joining the College of Human Ecology in each of its five departments at the assistant professor level.

Breakdown of newly hired faculty includes, Human Development – four new faculty; Design + Environmental Analysis – three new faculty; Policy Analysis and Management – four new faculty; Fiber Science & Apparel Design – one new faculty member; and the Division of Nutritional Sciences (a joint-administered unit of Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) – five new faculty (three based in Human Ecology and two based in CALS).

 A total of 12 new Human Ecology faculty members began their Cornell careers this fall, with three joining the College in 2019.

Hiring this number of new faculty members is significant for the College, said interim dean Rachel Dunifon, not only because it’s the largest new cohort of faculty hired in a single year, but also because it is the most diverse.

“We have a total of 100 tenured and tenure-track faculty in the College,” Dunifon said. “To have 15 percent of those faculty join us in a single year is extraordinary, and a wonderful sign of the vibrancy and excitement of our College.”

These new faculty are at the cutting-edge of their fields, and will bring their expertise to Human Ecology classrooms, research labs and intellectual community, Dunifon said.

“I have had the pleasure of meeting with each of the new faculty this semester, and am blown away by their passion for their work, the breadth and quality of what they do and the impact they will have on our College,” she said. “Their innovations, collaborations and new ideas will set our path for years to come.”

Human Development

The Department of Human Development is at the forefront of cutting-edge research on lifespan development, bringing together social scientists, psychologists and neuroscientists to understand and improve people’s lives.

Historically, the department has had a dual commitment to increase knowledge of human development through rigorous research and scholarship and to disseminate this knowledge beyond the classroom and into the real-world.

This was the kind of academic community William Hobbs wanted to be a part of. “My work is very collaborative, so I anticipate forming collaborations both within Human Ecology and with researchers in other fields such as in information science, government, sociology and communication,” he said, having already joined collaborations related to Cornell’s Translational Research Institute for Pain in Later Life.

Studying how people and social networks adapt to sudden changes, most of Hobbs’s work looks at health or politics and describes when and why people are resilient.

“For example, I’ve studied how people adapt after the death of their spouse or friend, how online communities reroute after government censorship and how public attitudes on the Affordable Care Act evolved after its implementation,” he said.

“The research informs how to design systems and policies that help people make the most of their lives and connections when faced with major changes, and when people tend to recover and adapt on their own, with some help from friends,” he said.

Similarly for Marlen Gonzalez, what attracted her to Human Ecology and Human Development in particular is its decidedly integrative and translational approach.

“I come from a clinical psychology background, but do non-clinical neuroimaging research and epigenetic research,” she said. “At the same time, what I really care about is how the big things in society – neighborhoods, school policy, social relationships – impact these small scale neural and epigenetic outcomes.”

The central question guiding Gonzalez’s research is, how do our developmental environments, and especially our social environments, shape our nervous system and biobehavioral strategies for coping in adulthood? If we think of our genes as variable, but flexible clay and our childhood environments as molds, then our adult characteristics and phenotypes, are the result of the interaction between these two features, she explained.

“While my methods are about looking at the bark of the trees, so to speak, I must also maintain the perspective of the forest and everything in between,” she said. “My work is therefore best when surrounded by people who also negotiate different levels of analyses with the expressed intention of both furthering knowledge and relieving suffering – that’s HD to me.”  

bethany ojalehto was drawn to the College’s and department’s dual mission of enriching basic scientific knowledge while also mobilizing that knowledge for the greater good.

“This dual purpose is integral to my research on environmental cognition across cultures, and I was excited at the opportunity to join an academic community where my work could grow and develop in both theoretical and applied directions,” she said.

ojalehto’s work focuses on understanding how humans understand and relate to other living organisms and the natural world. As part of her research, she has directly studied the indigenous Ngobe community of Panama for nearly a decade.

ojalehto investigates how cultural diversity and developmental change are associated with distinct modes of cognitive organization and real-world environmental decision making. Her work, as a whole, contributes to broad interdisciplinary research focused on the problem of how to improve human-environment relationships.

“By investigating how diverse cultural conceptual systems are linked to environmental decisions and human-nature relationships, my work brings a unique vantage point on the human dimensions of climate change that is grounded in an Indigenous perspective,” she said.

Division of Nutritional Sciences

The academic field of nutrition incorporates knowledge across the physical sciences, life sciences and social and behavioral sciences. The Division is a shared unit of Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. This fall saw five assistant professors join its ranks, including Tolunay Aydemir, Joeva Barrow, and Martha Field, based in Human Ecology, and Elizabeth Johnson and Nathaniel Vacanti in CALS.

Joeva Barrow is working to understand exactly how our bodies absorb and transport nutrients, and how these nutrients affect our genes, to find new treatments for some of the nation’s most pressing health problems including obesity, diabetes and mitochondrial diseases.

“My primary focus is on mitochondrial biology as it relates to mitochondrial diseases and obesity and associated metabolic disorders,” she said. “By investigating pathways that are aberrant in human disease, we can unveil novel therapy for the treatment of these disorders.”

Mitochondrial disease is a devastating series of disorders that currently have no effective treatment options or cures, she said. “Our research investigates metabolic pathways to identify novel factors that can be targeted for a therapy which is critical for these patients.”

Cornell is extremely interdisciplinary and collaborative, which is what attracted her to the College of Human Ecology and the Division of Nutritional Sciences, said Barrow. The nature of her work integrates molecular, human, community and international nutrition, and Cornell had excellent resources in place in order to ensure the success of this research program, she said.

According to Martha Field her research “seeks to understand how to use nutrition to improve human health and ultimately, hopefully, improve people’s lives.”

“My laboratory studies gene-nutrient-environment interactions, and underlying molecular mechanisms, that lead to development of pathology,” she said. “I currently have three research focus areas that include the role of nutrition in maintaining mitochondrial DNA integrity and mitochondrial function, understanding the role of the blood-brain barrier in maintaining brain nutrient status, and understanding the role of specific gene variants in defining genetic predisposition to weight gain.” 

Field said that she was attracted to the College of Human Ecology and the Division of Nutritional Sciences because of the breadth of on-going research and willingness of faculty to engage in collaborative research.

Tolunay Aydemir hopes to leverage her primary research interest, metal transport throughout the body, to help people maintain good health and improve lives. 

Centered on how zinc and manganese function within the body to regulate diverse cellular processes in health and disease, studying the roles played by individual metal transporters is necessary to gain an understanding of how trace metals influence normal physiologic processes and specific diseases.

“My research, using both mutant mouse models and cell level experimentation, focuses on understanding the transporter (ZIP14)-mediated, targeted function of nutritionally essential trace metals, zinc, and manganese,” she said. “These studies will construct a base for identifying new therapeutic targets for treating metabolic disorders and motor dysfunction.

“I believe that DNS’s diverse research environment, and my interdisciplinary educational and research experience in nutritional biochemistry and metabolism will serve the field of nutrition well to study the roles of nutrients in health and disease,” she said.

Elizabeth Johnson focuses her research on defining how molecules produced by the gut microbiome can influence human health. “Nutrition is an essential tool for improving human health and my research aims to define how we can use nutrition to influence the production of beneficial microbial metabolites that improve well-being,” she said. 

“My lab aims to understand how small lipid molecules produced by beneficial bacteria affect human health,” she continued. “Additionally, we are interested in how the lipid composition of breastmilk is able to influence the development of the infant microbiome.”

Nathaniel Vacanti’s research is on proteomics, the study of the entire complement of proteins that is or can be expressed by a cell, tissue, or organism. He is working towards developing tools to analyze metabolic pathway utilization, applying these methods to identify dietary or pharmaceutical interventions in hopes of forestalling or preventing chronic diseases.

“Every day we make connections with natural, social, and built environments; many of which are adversely affected by the onset of chronic diseases, such as type II diabetes, obesity, and cancer,” he said. “I hope to see my research efforts maintain these healthy connections through early detection and lifestyle, dietary, and/or pharmaceutical interventions.”

Design + Environmental Analysis

D+EA combines innovative design thinking with insightful design research to understand how our daily lives are impacted by the built environment. Through multidisciplinary training in human-centered design, environmental psychology, ergonomics and facility strategy and management, it tackles problems from a systems view – people, process and place – to create strategic sustainable and healthy futures by design.

Saleh Kalantari’s research promotes advanced technologies, innovative design approaches, and new analytical frameworks that can enhance the relationship between people and their created environment. This work has used virtual reality and biometric sensors to evaluate human responses to new designs and human-robot interactions during fabrication processes.

Kalantari hopes that understanding these areas better will leverage design further to improve people’s lives.

“I am the director of Design and Augmented Intelligence Lab (DAIL) at Cornell where we explore the intersections of human ingenuity and artificial intelligence in design,” he said. “My lab incorporates interdisciplinary perspectives from architecture, computer science, and psychology to further develop our understanding of new design technologies and their effects on human well-being.”

Kalantari said that the strong focus that the department and Human Ecology has on analyzing and addressing contemporary social problems was a big attraction, as well as the multidisciplinary approach that allows faculty members to cross over departmental boundaries and create exciting new research paradigms.

“The Design + Environmental Analysis Department at Cornell includes faculty whose interests range from architecture, to the social sciences, to environmental psychology, to robotics, and we are all looking at different scales of design and different design media,” he said. “But at the same time, we all share this common commitment to building healthier and human-centered environments.

“Being among these amazing faculty members who all look at design as a problem-solving task and who believe in addressing the human quality of the built environment was a very big motivation.”

In Jay Yoon’s view, D+EA’s exceptional ability to balance diverse research perspectives and embrace varied research efforts is critical to his research on “design for emotion and well-being” that integrates interaction design with knowledge of human behavior from social science and knowledge of well-being from positive psychology.

His research looks at how design and technology can contribute to facilitating long-term positive experiences and how those effects could be prolonged. More specifically, he has investigated how products can be designed to evoke distinct and nuanced positive emotional experiences and how designers can be supported to purposefully do so by developing design methods and tools.

“My research focuses on how products can be systematically designed to enrich users’ momentary, as well as long-term, experiences by means of emotions – building on knowledge and methods from user-centered design, positive psychology and persuasive technology,” he said. “My recent research revolves around designing for affective experiences and well-being with an emphasis on increasing designers’ emotional intelligence.”

Application of such research has covered multiple design contexts and business domains including a smart home service, an airport crew-center, a museum tour and a brand loyalty program, he said. The application areas are diverse including healthcare, automotive, social media and home appliances, to name a few.

“There is substantial evidence that positive emotions are strongly associated with psychological and physical well-being,” he said. “Given the fact that products evoke a series of positive emotions during usage or ownership, I believe my research can help produce design that is not only pleasurable in its own right, but also contributes to improving users’ lives.”

Policy Analysis and Management

Within the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, faculty expertise converge in a variety of disciplines, including economics, sociology, demography, political science, public health and public policy. Research generally falls into one of three thematic areas: family and social welfare, health and consumer policy.

Through its varied focused areas and broad scope, the department is known as an interdisciplinary division by nature.

“My research is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing together issues in economics, statistics, policy, health care, and management,” said Thomas Hoe. “So it made absolute sense to join a department positioned in such a rich interdisciplinary environment, and full of like-minded researchers that I can interact with.”

Hoe is an economist that researches how health care policies influence providers, such as hospitals. A primary aspect of this is evaluating how responses to policies might ultimately affect patients, such as through their health outcomes when receiving treatment or their ability to access treatment in the first place.

Another example is his recently-conducted studies on emergency department regulations and inpatient department crowding.

“Improving the quality of health care provision is at the center of my research, and by improving policymaking in this area I would hope my research can directly shape people’s lives,” he said. “One dimension of my research that I try to emphasize is that we can learn a lot about health care policy by comparing systems in different countries. While the systems and politics may differ, often the fundamental questions and objectives we are aiming for are similar.”

For Nicolas Bottan, the mission of improving people’s lives is what drew him to academia in the first place, and then on to his current role within Human Ecology.

“I am a policy-focused researcher, interested in understanding the extent to which social comparisons are important in shaping people’s behavior,” he said. “I also work on various topics related to understanding social consequences of public policy.”

This, for example, would include delving into questions such as: Did legalizing video gambling increase crime in Illinois? How do different public policies or shocks affect the nonprofit sector? What policies and programs are effective in improving learning in developing countries?

“I’m hopeful that by learning the answers to these questions I can contribute to shaping public policy both domestically and abroad,” he said. “I have many research interests in common with a lot of the faculty [at Cornell] and look forward to collaborating with them on future research.”

Pauline Leung said that she was drawn to PAM because of the large number of data-oriented people working on important policy issues, and that her research is most aligned with the “social environment” aspect of the College’s mission.

“My research focuses on how governmental programs that are aimed at supporting vulnerable populations, such as the unemployed and low-income, affect individual behavior and well-being, and how the design of these programs can be improved,” she said. “My research is mostly focused on national-level policies, but many programs that I study, including low-income cash assistance, medical assistance, and unemployment benefits, are federal-state partnerships.”

Adriana Reyes’s research also focuses on studying vulnerable populations, and is aimed at improving people’s lives by better understanding how social policies and programs can improve their health and well-being.

Her research focus is on family and health disparities across the life course. Her current work examines race and ethnic differences in intergenerational family relations, studying the financial and health consequences of living arrangements, economic transfers across generations and caregiving. She also examines race and nativity differences in health across the life course studying trajectories of health and mortality.

“My research is motivated by a desire to understand the social structure of inequalities and the mechanisms that sustain them,” Reyes said. “For example, I study living arrangements and family networks as strategies for dealing with social inequalities in conjunction with the implications of these social behaviors for inequality across generations.”

For Reyes, it was this focus on real-world impact and improving lives that influenced her decision come to Cornell.

“I was attracted to Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and the Policy Analysis and Management department in particular because of the rich intellectual community that fosters research on important social issues,” she said.

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