Psychology graduate earns award to help fund dissertation research

A 2017 American Psychological Association Dissertation Research Award has been awarded to Josie Ullsperger ’12 of Iowa City, Iowa, a Ripon College McNair Scholars alumna and a Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Iowa. The awards are made to help Ph.D. students fund their dissertation research. She also has received funding from the University of Iowa Graduate Student and Professional Government.

Ullsperger’s dissertation is titled: “A biopsychosocial exploration of early pubertal timing effects on adolescent psychopathology: Are personality traits and neurocognitive mechanisms the missing links?”

“Prior research has indicated that the average age of puberty is declining for both adolescent males and females,” Ullsperger says. “Importantly, earlier pubertal timing is associated with a range of negative outcomes including increased risk for anxiety, depression, behavior problems, cancer and diabetes. Additionally, rates of mental illnesses increase dramatically during the adolescent period for both genders.

“My dissertation research aims to examine why some early-developing youth develop mental health problems, while others do not, and to examine whether these pathways vary in males versus females. Elucidation of these pathways will point to targets for psychoeducation, prevention, and intervention efforts aiming to improve the lives of adolescents and their families.”

Ullsperger has conducted interviews and research with adolescents and their parents and soon will be analyzing her findings. The research builds upon her prior work examining sex differences in pubertal timing effects on adolescent psychopathology which was published in Psychological Bulletin in 2017 (Ullsperger, J. & Nikolas, M. (2017). A meta-analytic review of the association between pubertal timing and psychopathology in adolescence: Are there sex differences in risk? Psychological Bulletin. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/bul0000106.)

Ullsperger is a sixth-year clinical psychology Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa. At Ripon, she majored in psychology with a sociology minor. She credits the mentorship and support she received from Ripon psychology professors Kristine Kovack-Lesh, Tim Petersik and Joe Hatcher, as well as McNair Director Dan Krhin.

“I chose this area of study because I am particularly interested in understanding etiology of sex differences in rates of psychopathology during the adolescence, as well as how individual differences in pubertal development may contribute to mental health risk,” Ullsperger says. “That is, why do some disorders — anxiety, depression, eating disorders — increase for females relative to males during the adolescent period? As well as how does individual variation in the underlying biological and psychosocial changes associated with puberty contribute to this risk?”

As part of the clinical psychology Ph.D., Ullsperger is required to complete a year-long clinical psychology internship/residency, and she hopes to be matched at a children’s hospital with a heavy research focus.

“My future goals include continuing to work in a career conducting research at the intersection of clinical psychology and development, working clinically with children and their families, and mentoring undergraduate students,” Ullsperger says.


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