Emerging Scholar Spotlight

June 2020

Kelli Dickerson

Kelli Dickerson is a doctoral candidate specializing in developmental psychology and quantitative methods in the Department of Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine.  At the broadest level, her research focuses on the effects of adversity on adolescent development, particularly socio-emotional functioning and mental health.  She employs a range of cross-sectional and longitudinal methodologies to explore these effects, including clinical controlled trials, laboratory experiments, and field investigations in the U.S. and abroad.  She is the recipient of an NICHD F31 predoctoral fellowship and a Doris Duke Fellowship for the Promotion of Child Well-Being

Kelli’s interest in adolescent development was initially sparked by her experiences working on an NIMH-funded study (PI: Dr. Jennifer Skeem) evaluating clinically feasible methods of assessing psychiatric patients’ risk for future violence and self-harm. In working with these patients and learning about their developmental histories (which often involved exposure to multiple forms of adversity, spanning from early childhood and into adolescence), she became deeply interested in the etiology of the social and emotional problems these patients were manifesting. These interests led her to pursue a PhD at the University of California, Irvine, where she has been collaborating with Dr. Jodi Quas, studying these topics.

A core component of much of her ongoing work concerns how adversity affects socio-emotional processes in adolescents, including self-perceptions, emotion understanding, and empathy and prosociality, and how development (e.g., puberty) moderates these effects. She has, for example, studied how early unpredictability shapes youths’ perceptions about themselves, the world, and their future (e.g., perceptions of future unpredictability) across adolescence and how these perceptions predict subsequent tendencies toward prosocial and antisocial behavior.  In other work, she has studied the links among early adversity, perceived social status, and mental health in children and adolescents, finding that lower perceptions of social status predict more severe mental health symptoms, with these effects being particularly robust among adolescents.  Finally, she has tested the effects of emotion understanding on a range of socio-emotional outcomes (e.g., aggression, prosociality) in maltreated and non-maltreated adolescents, with evidence emerging from this work that these effects are moderated by pubertal phase. 

In her most recent work, she is turning toward translational and implementation science.  She is particularly interested in developing and evaluating tools, interventions, and policies that promote positive development and socio-emotional functioning in vulnerable adolescents and can be integrated in a variety of community settings.  For instance, she is testing methods of enhancing emotion understanding and empathic and prosocial behavior in violence-exposed adolescents, with the goal of identifying methods that are engaging, developmentally informed, and accessible via digital and mobile technology methods.  Ultimately, through her research she aims to: 1) advance understanding regarding mechanisms of risk and resilience in adolescents who have endured early adversity, and 2) increase the reach of valuable tools and services to these often-underserved populations.

Advice For Emerging Scholars

  • Be proactive.  Seek out the experiences and training opportunities that will prepare you for the career you want.
  • Don’t be afraid to think creatively about your research questions.  Progress often depends on such thinking.
  • Seek mentorship from a variety of sources in the field, including junior and senior scientists but also fellow doctoral students.
  • Collaboration is one of the most useful methods of building knowledge, expertise, and connections in the field.
  • Rejection is common-place in research and academia (grants, papers, ideas).  We all experience it at multiple points. Get comfortable with rejection and use it as an opportunity for growth.

Featured Publications

  • Dickerson, K.L., Skeem, J., Montoya, L., & Quas, J.A. (2020). Using Positive Emotion Training with Maltreated Youths to Reduce Anger Bias and Physical Aggression. Clinical Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/2167702620902118
  • Dickerson, K.L., Milojevich, H.M., & Quas, J.A. (2019).  Early Environmental Unpredictability: Implications for Youth’s Perceptions and Social Functioning. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 48, 1754-1764. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01052-9
  • Dickerson, K.L., Flynn, E.B., Levine, L., & Quas, J.A. (2018). Are Emotions Controllable? Maltreated and Non-Maltreated Youth’s Implicit Beliefs about Emotion and Aggressive Tendencies. Child Abuse and Neglect, 77, 222-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2018.01.010