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Teaching Adolesence

Emerging Scholar Spotlight: Cortney Simmons

February 2019

Cortney Simmons is a doctoral candidate in Psychological Science at the University of California, Irvine. Her path to psychology began as an undergraduate at Rice University, where she completed her B.A. in both Psychology and Kinesiology. Cortney was a research assistant for Dr. Mikki Hebl, whose research on diversity and discrimination taught her the importance of conducting research that could be applied to real-world problems. With that lesson in mind, Cortney applied to work under the advisement of Dr. Elizabeth Cauffman who strives to bridge developmental science with practice and policy. For example, findings from her research were incorporated into numerous amicus briefs submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court on cases which abolished the juvenile death penalty and limited the use of life without parole for juveniles. Under Dr. Cauffman’s guidance, Cortney hopes to make a similar impact by exploring the individual and environmental factors that influence juvenile delinquency and by examining the effects of justice-system involvement on adolescent development.

Cortney was awarded the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, which has allowed her to pursue projects covering different topics related to juvenile delinquency. Her first publication examined the impact of fathers on juvenile delinquency. Cortney and her co-authors found that youth with hostile fathers engaged in more offending and substance use than those without fathers. Compelled by these findings and the expansive literature that recognizes that a father’s influence is more complex than just their presence or financial support, Cortney launched a study to interview the fathers of first-time male juvenile offenders. Each interview will assess the fathers’ personality traits and behavior, as well as their emotional, academic, and financial support of their sons. The results of this project will provide a fuller picture of how fathers’ involvement impacts adolescent behavior and well-being.

As an NSF fellow, Cortney has also dedicated time to learning advanced statistical methods and taking courses outside of her primary research area. Doing so has given her a broader understanding of what methods can be used to understand individual differences in psychology and behavior at multiple levels of analysis. Cortney employs advanced statistical modeling and salivary bioscience methods, both of which she picked up through outside coursework, for her dissertation. The two-part study focuses on the biological correlates of callous-unemotional (CU) traits—a robust risk factor for delinquent behavior (Simmons et al. 2018). Compared to other antisocial youth, those with elevated CU traits are more likely to engage in violent and severe antisocial behavior, which in turn increases their likelihood of justice-system involvement. To better understand how CU traits predispose youth to delinquency, the dissertation will use an experimental design to examine the relation between CU traits, delinquency-related behaviors, and three hormones: cortisol, testosterone, and alpha-amylase. Importantly, the proposed study will include a diverse sample of male first-time offenders recruited from an ongoing longitudinal study. Cortney hopes this dissertation will refine our understanding of CU traits and help researchers and practitioners develop more effective early prevention and treatment methods.

Advice for other emerging scholars.

  • Pay it forward. It is important to recognize that you might have not made it to (or through) graduate school without scores of people providing knowledge, encouragement, and opportunities. The best thing you can do is provide the same for undergraduate and graduate students who are on their own academic journeys. This can be done by sharing your own experiences on career panels, meeting one-on-one to discuss ideas, or by helping them obtain research experience. For Cortney, mentoring undergraduates through their own research projects has been one of the most rewarding experiences while in graduate school.
  • Don’t skip presentations, classes, or articles just because they are outside of your discipline. The most innovative research integrates theories and methods from multiple fields in order to better understand a construct. You never know what interesting tidbit you could pick up and use to improve/expand your own work.

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