Inside the mind of researcher Robert Stawski

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Associate Professor Robert Stawski joined Oregon State’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences in 2013 after holding research positions at the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and Pennsylvania State University. In 2014, he took on the role of director of the Population, Social and Individual Health Core in the CPHHS’ Center for Healthy Aging Research. He earned a master’s degree and PhD in Experimental Psychology at Syracuse University.


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

“There are actually two moments that inspired my career path. First, when I started my undergraduate degree I was majoring in chemical engineering, but the courses and subject material just weren’t holding my interest. For years, my parents had suggested I consider courses in psychology. I finally did, and really loved the study of understanding people and their thoughts and behaviors. I never looked back. The moral of the story, listen to your parents.

Second, as an undergrad I was planning to become a practicing clinical psychologist. That all changed one semester when I was taking courses in research methods and cognitive psychology, both taught by Douglas Hershey, PhD. Doug exposed me to the world of psychological research on cognitive aging, and I was completely enamored. At that point I knew I wanted to pursue my PhD in cognitive and developmental psychology. I spent two years as a research assistant in his lab, and he helped me navigate the waters of finding the best options for graduate school. My experience and relationship with Doug was so important, we still keep in touch and get together annually at professional conferences.”

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Robert Stawski, CPHHS associate professor, director of Population, Social and Individual Health Core in the CPHHS’ Center for Healthy Aging Research.

What does your current research entail?

“In general, my research focuses on understanding both the immediate and long-term effects of stressful experiences on mental, physical and cognitive health throughout adulthood and aging. My work focuses on understanding how stressful experiences impact these different facets of health so that we might be able to identify interventions for reducing stress and promoting health and healthy aging.”

What sparked your interest in this area?

“When I started graduate school I knew I wanted to conduct research on memory and cognitive ability in aging. At that point, comparatively little research on the impact of stress on cognitive aging was being conducted, and I was fortunate to work on a research project that was just starting to examine this. Being involved in the formative stages of research in this novel area was exciting. Furthermore, studying stress – something potentially amenable to intervention and prevention efforts – seemed like a powerful and important endeavor for promoting health and healthy aging.”

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

“The most fascinating part of stress research is how complex of a phenomenon stress is. Stress can impact how we feel right now, have a prolonged effect on how we feel in the coming days and weeks and contribute to long-term health and well-being. What is stressful to one person isn’t necessarily stressful to someone else. Additionally, the same person can often react very differently to different situations and stressful experiences. Stress is a ubiquitous human experience, yet there are so many aspects to consider for understanding how and why stress impacts health.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“I hope my research will help advance understanding about how stressful experiences – both major and minor – impact mental, physical and cognitive health, and identify potential points for optimal intervention and prevention efforts. Humans live in complex, interactive and dynamic environments, and the vast majority of individuals’ stressful experiences occur in these environments. If we can identify aspects of the individual, the environment or both that can be utilized to reduce stress and its impact on health, we have the opportunity help promote the health of individuals, families and communities.”

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

“Given our common interests in stress, health and aging, I have been collaborating with CPHHS Professor Carolyn Aldwin, as well as Larry Cheng and Patrick Chiang in Electrical Engineering, on a project to study the use of novel sensor-based technologies for assessing cardiovascular and hormonal responses to minor stressors occurring in daily life. Additionally, I am collaborating with Carolyn Aldwin and CPHHS Assistant Professor Carolyn Mendez-Luck on a project to examine stress and health behaviors and their contribution to health disparities.”

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

“Studying the multitude of factors that influence the health and well-being of individuals and families is one of the best ways to contribute knowledge and advance practice in service of promoting health.”

What’s next for you? Do you have any future research projects lined up?

“While I have a number of projects outlined that will build on ongoing projects, I am most excited about new collaborations with researchers here at Oregon State University. I have been fortunate to have many inspiring and exciting discussions about new projects and collaborations with colleagues in Human Development and Family Sciences, Epidemiology, Exercise and Sport Science, Health Management and Policy, and the Hallie E. Ford Center for Healthy Children and Families. It is a tremendous honor to work in this environment with such creative and insightful scholars. I can see many new directions for my research that are a result of the dynamic interdisciplinary culture fostered within the CPHHS.”

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

“The best advice I have received isn’t something I was told, but more of a philosophy I developed from my observations of and discussions with mentors, colleagues and pillars in the field. Don’t assume that you have worked hard enough, put in enough hours, mastered something or done a ‘good enough’ job. There is a difference between being self-critical and being constructively critical about one’s self. The latter is a much more difficult skill to learn, but one that fosters continued intellectual growth.”

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

“I will draw on a phrase one of my closest colleagues and best friend likes to use: ‘You make your own magic.’ It is incredibly important to be an agent in your own professional development and cultivation of opportunities.”

What are your favorite activities outside of work?

“I enjoy spending time with my wife, Tami, and our dog, Daisy; drumming; watching soccer and tennis; and discovering the wonderful things living in Oregon has to offer.”

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