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Inside the mind of researcher John Geldhof

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Human Development and Family Sciences Assistant Professor John Geldhof came to the College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2013 after serving as a research assistant professor at the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts University. He earned a master’s degree and PhD from the University of Kansas and completed post-doctoral training at Tufts University. John is a researcher in the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. 

What made you decide to get into this field of study? Is there one specific moment that inspired your career path?

“I have always been interested in understanding people and their behaviors, so pursuing a career in psychology seemed inevitable for me. Although I originally wanted to work as a clinician, the more I learned about psychology, the more I became curious about understanding the processes that underlie human behavior. My clinical interests slowly morphed into the desire to produce new knowledge, and I decided to become a researcher.

Around the time I decided to become a researcher, I was working with Operation Breakthrough, an early education center for children living in poverty. To fulfill a service-learning requirement for a class, I had begun administering kindergarten readiness assessments to children in the program. Getting to know these children showed me the amazing potential the kids in this program had, but I also saw the enormous barriers they faced each and every day. I wanted to find ways to help these kids succeed, and working with them solidified my decision to pursue a PhD in developmental psychology.”

What does your current research entail?

“My primary research focuses on the development of self-regulation, or self-control, across the lifespan; I work to find ways we leverage self-regulation skills to promote the positive development of all people. I am also interested in quantitative – or statistical – methodology, both as a research domain and as a tool for optimizing my empirical research.”

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“After committing to an advanced degree in developmental psychology, I quickly realized that being a competitive graduate school applicant would require at least some experience in a research lab. Fortunately, I was accepted to work in a lab that focused on self-regulation and its relation to health management behaviors, especially in children.

My primary task as an undergraduate research assistant in this lab was to start a literature review examining the relation – or lack thereof – between children’s self-regulation skills and obesity. Although self-regulation was not one of my original interests, the more I read, the more fascinated I became with self-regulation and with how pervasively self-regulation skills correlated with positive development. My experience as a research assistant also instilled me with an appreciation for advanced statistical training, so by the time I applied to graduate school I knew that I wanted to study the development of self-regulation and have at least a minor concentration in quantitative methods.”

How will this make a difference?

“One of developmental science’s most important theoretical innovations is an explicit acknowledgement that development does not happen to individuals. Individuals and their environments develop together, and both components equally impact each other. This means individuals continuously influence their own development by controlling both their actions and their environments. This direct impact is what I call self-regulation. Understanding how to foster self-regulation means understanding how to give individuals the skills they need to positively influence their own development.”

What would you say is the most fascinating aspect of this research?

“The most fascinating thing about self-regulation is its diversity. People intuitively see self-control or willpower as a single thing that individuals have either more or less of. Research instead suggests a whole suite of self-regulatory skills and further indicates that each individual has a unique constellation of strengths that he or she uses to overcome the obstacles presented by his or her environment. No two people are exactly alike, and no two people regulate their behavior in exactly the same way.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“I hope my research will push us to acknowledge the diversity of people’s strengths. Self-regulation research doesn’t strive to find a single magic bullet that will improve everybody’s self-regulation skills; the trick is to find ways to leverage existing strengths and to help people develop strategies for addressing the needs presented by their environments.”

Are you working with anyone else in the CPHHS on this project?

“I have begun working with Laurel Kincl, a member of the Environmental and Occupational Health and Safety faculty. Laurel is interested in interventions that reduce worker injury, and we are currently exploring the effectiveness of NIOSH’s Talking Safety program for promoting what we call the Five Cs of Young Worker Safety. The Five Cs are directly derived from Lerner and Lerner’s Five Cs Model of Positive Youth Development.

I am also collaborating with Denise Rennekamp, the Parenting Education Program Coordinator for Extension Service and the outreach coordinator for the Hallie E. Ford Center. We are designing a pilot evaluation of parenting education courses offered by the Oregon Parenting Education Collaborative, paying special attention to the ways that parenting education courses can help parents promote their children’s self-regulation skills and other indicators of positive youth development.”

Why is research important in the field of human development and family sciences?

“Human development is complex; it is not always clear why similar people raised in similar environments can follow such diverse trajectories. The better we understand the processes that underlie human development, the better we can focus our energies on improving the well-being of all people.”

What’s next for you?

“I feel truly fortunate to have the opportunity to work in a university with so many wonderful researchers. I already described a couple of my ongoing projects, but I am excited to see where my new collaborations will take me!”

What is the best advice you’ve ever received, and who gave it?

“When I was a post-doc at Tufts University, I had to drive through Medford Square every day on my way to work. One day I was stuck in traffic and started looking around, waiting for the light on Salem Street to turn green. For some reason the emblem for UBC local 218 caught my eye, and on it I read these three words: Labor Omnia Vincit. Work conquers all. A lot of people have given me a lot of good advice, but most of the best advice I’ve ever received boils down to those three simple words. You’re going to run into obstacles regardless of the path you take. Hard work is the best way to overcome most obstacles.”

What advice would you give to current students and recent alums?

“Learning is a lifelong process. One day you think you’ve mastered something, but the next day you realize you’ve only scratched the surface. Actively seek out opportunities to learn and celebrate the diversity of knowledge that surrounds you.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“I enjoy spending time with my family, hiking and sampling all the new things the Willamette Valley has to offer.”

Click here to learn more from CPHHS researchers in these “Inside the mind of researcher” feature stories.

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