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Active Learning and Research
Active Learning and Research
Psychology professor Esteban Cardemil, along with students in his course Research in the Community, study the development and nature of depression in low-income and minority populations.

Meet the researchers: Toward a richer understanding of people

Interview with Professor Esteban Cardemil

Dr. Cardemil, what led you to study psychology in general, and depression in particular?

I was always interested in applying the scientific method to understanding human problems and issues. When I was an undergraduate I was involved in some animal research. I found it interesting, but didn't particularly like working with animals. So I transitioned to human research.

Depression, for me, serves as a proxy for understanding personal well-being, a kind of short hand for seeing how people are doing in their lives, and for understanding what makes their lives meaningful and fulfilling. Studying depression is a good way to get at those questions, because when things aren't going well, it's reflected in people's emotions. I think ultimately a better an understanding of depression will provide a richer understanding of people, above and beyond that of depression itself.

Your two current research projects focus on depression in some subset of low-income and minority populations. Why are these populations of particular interest to you as a researcher?

A couple of reasons. There are gaps in our understanding of psychology that are interesting and important to address. Psychology, like a lot of other academic disciplines, has, until recently, devoted most of its attention to understanding middle-income Caucasians. Consequently, the range of human experience that such research deals with is limited. While these studies have produced a lot of useful information, they don't necessarily inform us how people or some psychological variables function under other conditions, like low income or minority status.

I also have a strong interest in doing work that has social relevance, and that can improve the world. I want to learn what prevents people who live in low-income environments from functioning well. I also want to learn what things for them are sources of strength and resilience. So there's a social justice component to my focus of study, as well as a gap in our knowledge.

Are there factors that make that these populations difficult to study?

Yes, a lot. Often, for a lot of good reasons, they are not as willing or as interested in participating in research.

Is that because a lot of the researchers are upper class, white academics with whom they feel nothing in common?

That's one reason. There's also a history, generally in the medical profession, of taking advantage of people for the purposes of research. There are some pretty bad instances of people participating in potentially harmful research without having received much or any information about the risks involved. So there's a general suspiciousness around the issue of informed consent. People also weigh whether research participation will benefit them. I, as the researcher, can write papers and advance my career, or talk about programs being developed down the road, but how are those things going to help participants right now?

Researchers often encounter logistical issues when trying to study poor and minority people. A lot of the work that we're interested in is longitudinal in nature, that is, we study people over months or years. People living in low-income environments are often transitory, moving from home to home, out of state, or even back to their home country. They're more difficult to keep track of than, say, an undergrad who is right here, or a middle class family whose phone number doesn't change for three or four years in a row.

One of your projects looks at depression in low-income, middle-school children. What interested you about this age group?

We targeted middle school students for a couple of reasons. We know that depression rates in middle class, majority kids start to increase about the time they enter middle school. So if we can get kids during that transition period, we can see the extent to which these models of symptom development are similar or not similar. Kids this age have a certain level of self-awareness and cognitive development that we wanted.

How did you go about gaining consent to work with these students?

We began by approaching the schools. We explained to teachers and administrators what we were interested in doing, and talked about how these issues were relevant to what was going on in their schools. Once they were on board, we made presentations to the kids. We told them about the project, and about incentives for being in the project—little gift certificates. We told them that we'd be gathering information that would help the school get a better sense of what their experiences were like. We also told them that that at the end of the project we'd offer them a free stress management workshop. Then, if they wanted to participate, we told them to talk to their parents and have them sign consent forms.

What is the focus of your second research project?

We're offering a depression prevention program for Latina mothers, who, in this area, tend also to be low income. We wanted to develop a program that was very culturally specific. The program requires that participants come in on a weekly basis and learn, in a group setting, some of the stress management that I mentioned earlier—ways to handle difficult situations coming up in their lives. The mothers also participate in family sessions where they meet individually with the group leader and someone in their family, typically a husband or other adult family member. We hope that, by giving them skills and coping resources, they will be better prepared to fight off depression when things go wrong in their lives.

I know that research participation by undergraduates is strongly encouraged by the psychology department, and that your students are participating in a course called Research in the Community. Is that something you instituted?

Yes, I developed it, thinking that it would be a good way to get undergrads involved in the middle school student project. So the course is designed around that project. Students read background articles relevant to the theoretical foundation of the project, and engage in discussion about the dilemmas and thought process that goes into the project. They're also involved in the hands on part of the project as well. They help with the recruitment of participants, data collection and entry—all the pieces that go into that project.

In order for them to gain some experience with data interpretation and analysis, each student is required, at the end of the yearlong course, to give a poster presentation at Academic Spree Day. To do that, each student designs (with our help) his or her own "twist" on the project—a specific question to test against the data. In the course of this project we administer enough questionnaires that there are many different questions to ask and wonder about. We walk each student through the process of identifying a hypothesis, analyzing the data, and writing it up the results in a way suitable for presentation. We encourage particularly motivated students to submit proposals to present their research at external conferences, not just here at Clark. Three students presented at the Eastern Psychological Conference, a regional conference that this year was held in Boston.

I would think that Worcester's Main South neighborhood, in which Clark plays an active part, would be a great area for studies like the ones you're working on.

Yes. The community sees them as relevant, and the larger literature sees them as relevant and interesting. So there are really good opportunities here for Clark students to engage in a variety of different experiences. They're able to get involved in publishable quality research, and hands on community work.

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Professor CardemilProfessor Esteban Cardemil

Professor Cardemil advising students on their Academic Spree Day poster presentation.

 A variety of different research experiences.

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