2020 Graduate Students

Justina F. Avila-Rieger

Photo: Justina F. Avila-Rieger

Faculty Mentor:  Steven P. Verney, PhD


Dissertation Description:  Justina investigated the intersectionality between race/ethnicity and sex/gender as determinants of specific socio-cultural experiences that shape biological risk factors and distinct cognitive health trajectories leading to Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Her findings suggest that testing interactions between race/ethnicity and sex/gender yields a more nuanced understanding of mechanisms of AD disparities and may lead to the development of new strategies to prevent or slow AD-related cognitive decline.

Acknowledgements:  I would like to thank my mentor Dr. Steven Verney for his guidance, support, and wisdom. Thank you, Dr. Verney, for investing in my professional development and helping me to cultivate my passion for health disparities. Thank you to my mother for instilling in me a strong commitment to education and social justice and my father for teaching me his strong work ethic. To my amazing wife, I am so happy we get to share this experience together. Thank you for making me a better person every day and always supporting my dreams. Thank you to my brother and second mother, as well as the rest of my amazing family and friends who have supported me from the beginning.

Rebecca Avila-Rieger


Faculty Mentor:  Ron Yeo, PhD

Dissertation Title:  Socioeconomic and Neuroanatomic Contributions to Language Performance in Children born Very Preterm at Preschool and School Age

Dissertation Description:   The complex associations among socioeconomic status, prematurity, and neuroanatomy on language performance were examined in children born very preterm.


I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Ronald Yeo, for his encouragement and wisdom.  Dr. Yeo’s curiosity, intellectual rigor, and overall passion for the integrity of science has made me a better researcher.  To Dr. Steven Verney, whose commitment to health disparities inspired me to ask these hard questions.  I have learned from you not just to sit with disheartening realities but to ask what I personally can do about them.  I would like to thank Dr. Jean Lowe, who so seamlessly bridges her clinical and research endeavors.  Your dedication to families of  very preterm children is inspirational, and I will always be grateful that you introduced me to the complex phenomenon of preterm birth.  I would also like to thank Dr. Richard Campbell for being one of my first clinical supervisors and teaching me how to translate my research into clinical practice.  Thank you to Dr. Robin Ohls for allowing me to be involved in the BRITE project.  And I want to thank all of my clinical supervisors over the course of graduate school who showed me the importance of this kind of work. 

Finally, I want to acknowledge my family and friends for their unwavering support.  To my wife, Justina, whose academic passion and fierce dedication to fighting health disparities was catching.  Thank you for your support and encouragement.  Thank you to my parents, Heidi and Richard, for encouraging me to pursue graduate school and supporting me even when I moved across the country to do so.  To my sisters, Hillary and Abigail, who always offered an empathetic ear and whose dedication to healthcare parallels my own.

Jalene Herron

Photo: Jalene Herron

Faculty Mentor:  Kamilla Venner, PhD

Thesis Title:  Cultural Factors and Alcohol Use in American Indian Adults: Results from a Randomized Controlled Trial of Contingency Management

Thesis Description:  My thesis examined the impact of cultural relevant risk and protective factors on alcohol use in American Indian adults involved in a randomized controlled trial of contingency management to reduce alcohol use. Results suggested the importance of enculturation as a protective factor against heavy drinking in reservation dwelling American Indian adults.

Acknowledgements:  I’d like to express my gratitude to my mentor, Kamilla Venner, and my committee members, Davood Tofighi and Michael McDonell, for guiding me through the process of my thesis. Thank you to my fellow lab mates, friends, and my partner for their support and encouragement. Quyana cakneq, to my parents, Bob and Margaret Herron, for their love and guidance and for raising me with Yup’ik values that I carry with me always, kenkamken.

Eric Kruger

Photo: Eric Kruger
PhD Health Psychology

Vaculty Mentor:  Kevin Vowles

Dissertation Title:  Addressing Content, Convergent and Predictive Validity of Implicit Pain-Related Fear in Chronic Low Back Pain

Dissertation Description:  Chronic low back pain (CLBP) is a common condition that can lead to emotional distress and physical disability.  Fear of pain, a phobic-like response to pain, can contribute to avoidance behavior that leads to deconditioning, disability and emotional distress. Physical therapists have increasingly incorporated psychological factors into their practice while simultaneously addressing fear of pain during treatment. Questionnaires remain the gold standard for measurement of pain-related fear. Recent work has explored the use of implicit methods for the measurement of pain related fear. The aim of this study was to assess implicit pain-related fear in participants with CLBP. Additionally, the convergent and predictive validity of implicit pain-related fear was examined in relation to explicit self-report measures, self-reported functioning and physical performance tasks.

Acknowledgements:  I'd like to thank my parents, Dennis and Wendy Kruger, my wife, Melissa, and my daughter, Louisa. I could not have done this without the guidance of Dr. Vowles, Dr. Witkiewitz and Dr. Delaney—you all were my Virgil through the inferno. I also especially appreciate my peers in my cohort, I’ll cherish these relationships for the rest of my life.

Gabriela López

Photo: Gabriela López

Faculty Mentor:   Elizabeth Yeater, PhD

Dissertation Title:  Sexual Victimization, Mental Health, and Protective Factors among Women with Multiple Marginalized Statuses

Dissertation Description:  Intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1989) and minority stress (Meyer, 2003) frameworks were used as theoretical foundations to examine associations among sexual minority status (e.g., lesbian and bisexual) and race/ethnicity (e.g., White, Black, Latinx), adult sexual victimization and revictimization, mental health symptoms (i.e., depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder), and protective factors (i.e., religiosity, spirituality, social support).


First and foremost, I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Elizabeth Yeater, for her invaluable mentorship and support throughout seven years of graduate school. Dr. Yeater’s intellectual rigor and dedication to addressing sexual violence among women is admirable. She has made me a better clinical scientist. To my dissertation committee members, Dr. Kamilla Venner, Dr. Steve Verney, Dr. Tonda Hughes, and Dr. Cindy Veldhuis, thank you for your support and feedback throughout this project. I would also like to thank Dr. Blake Boursaw, Dr. Chance Strenth, and Dr. Katie Witkiewitz for their statistical guidance. To my fellowship mentors, Dr. Shannon Sanchez-Youngman and Dr. Gabriel Sanchez, thank you for teaching me everything you know about health disparities. Special thanks to Dr. Sarah Ullman, who invested in me as an undergraduate student and encouraged me to pursue graduate school. To all my clinical supervisors, I am so grateful for your dedication in helping me advance my clinical expertise in women’s mental health. To every single one of my patients throughout graduate school and internship, it was an honor to be a part of your mental health journey.

Last, but never least, I would like to thank my friends and family for their continuous support, laughter, and encouragement. Thank you to my parents, Rafael and Teresa, for their love and guidance. Muchas gracias por el sacrificio durante estos siete años; este doctorado es tanto suyo como es mío.

John Madden

Photo: John Madden

Faculty Mentor:  Nathan Pentkowski, PhD

Thesis Title:  Antagonizing serotonin 2A (5-HT2A) receptors attenuates methamphetamine-induced reward and blocks methamphetamine-induced anxiety-like behaviors in adult male rats

Thesis Description:  Our study investigated the effects of the selective 5-HT2A receptor antagonist M100907 on the acquisition of methamphetamine-conditioned place preference and methamphetamine-induced anxiety in adult male rats.

Acknowledgements:  I'd like to thank my undergraduate research assistants Nicole Reyna and Emerald Goranson for their tireless efforts in helping with this research, my advisor Dr. Pentkowski for guiding me through this entire process, and lastly my wife Krystalyn Madden for all of her love and support across these last few years.

John F. L. Pinner

Photo: John F. L. Pinner
PhD Experimental Psychology

Faculty Mentor:  James F. Cavanagh, PhD

Dissertation Title:  The Relationships Between Brain Function, Brain Structure, and Behavior in Children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder

Dissertatioin Description:  Prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE), the leading cause of childhood developmental disability, has long-lasting effects extending throughout the lifespan. In this dissertation, we intend to show how white matter integrity, as assessed by fractional anisotropy, is associated with neural functioning, assessed via magnetoencephalography, and how this association relates to behavior. It is well documented that children prenatally exposed to alcohol have difficulties inhibiting behavior and sustaining attention. Thus, the Sustained Attention to Response Task, a Go/No-go paradigm, is especially well suited to assess the behavioral and neural functioning characteristics of PAE children. This dissertation shows that children 8-12 years old with PAE have decreased associations between brain structure and function, and that these deficits are associated with poorer performance on neuropsychological functioning. 

Acknowledgements:  First, I would like to thank my advisor, James F. Cavanagh, Ph.D. for taking me into his lab when I needed a new “home”, for his continuous encouragement, and for keeping me on track. Thanks for getting me back up on that horse when I needed it.

I would also like to thank Julia M. Stephen, Ph.D. for welcoming me into her lab and entrusting me with her project. Your guidance and friendship are invaluable and enduring. Thank you for your unending patience and sincere kindness.

Ruth Sarafin

Photo: Ruth Sarafin

Faculty Mentor:  Geoffrey Miller, PhD

Dissertation Title:  Manipulation of human behavior by sexually transmitted organisms: STO infection status as a predictor of later sexual behavior

Dissertation Description:  Men who contract genital herpes have more sexual partners at follow-up than STO-free men, which is consistent with theories of manipulation of host behavior by pathogens.

Acknowledgements:  Thanks to my advisor, Geoffrey Miller, and my committee, Joe Alcock, Marco Del Giudice, and Steve Gangestad. Also thanks to my family and my friends who became my family. I love you all.

Brandi Shannon Seaman

Photo: Brandi Shannon Seaman

Faculty Mentor:  Ron Yeo, PhD

Dissertation Title:  Subjective Cognitive Complaints, Affective Distress, and Objective Cognitive Performance in Mild Traumatic Brain Injury

Dissertation Description:  My doctoral dissertation focused on individuals with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI) and examined subjective cognitive complaints, objective cognitive deficits (as measured by neuropsychological assessment), and the role mood plays in overall symptom presentation. Results indicated that depression appears to be a critical treatment target for improving quality of life in patients with mTBI.

Acknowledgements:  I would like to express my gratitude to my mentor, Dr. Ron Yeo, whose expertise, guidance, and patience has been invaluable throughout my graduate training. My deepest heartfelt appreciation goes to my parents, Susan and Ray Seaman for always believing in me. Thank you for your unfailing support and continuous encouragement. Thank you to my friends, family, and colleagues for your love and support.