HDFS Research

Inside the mind of researcher Carolyn Aldwin

“I read a lot of life histories and fell in love with older adults and aging research,” Carolyn says. “I discovered that older adults were like living history books…I discovered that older adults had these rich, complex lives – and that everyone had a story to tell.”

Human Development and Family Sciences Professor Carolyn Aldwin is the new Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of the CPHHS’ Center for Healthy Aging Research effective beginning Jan. 1, 2014. Carolyn, who also is the director of the college’s Gerontology Program and a visiting professor at the University of Connecticut, has held various academic appointments dating back to 1984. Before coming to Oregon State in 2004, she served as a professor in the Department of Human and Community Development at the University of California, Davis. She earned a PhD in the Adult Development and Aging Program at the University of California, San Francisco.

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

Human Development and Family Sciences Professor Carolyn Aldwin is the new Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of the CPHHS’ Center for Healthy Aging Research effective beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

“I was always really interested in adult development – specifically in exceptional people, including geniuses, people who made outstanding contributions to the arts and sciences, or who were tremendous moral leaders like Martin Luther King and Gandhi. My first year in graduate school I read everything I could get my hands on – psychobiographies by Erikson, adult development studies by Vaillant and White – and decided that they were all addressing the same phenomena, even though they had different words for it – and that no one really knew how to measure it. I was trying to figure out how to approach this when I read a paper by Bernice Neugarten and Bill Henry, who said, ‘If you want to know a person’s real personality, look at them under stress.’ So I thought, perhaps if I studied how individuals coped with stress, then I could figure out what made some individuals really successful. But when I went to Berkeley to study with Dick Lazarus, I discovered that we didn’t know how to measure stress, either – and that our stress measures didn’t reflect the experiences of older adults, so that launched my career in studying stress and coping processes in late life and how they affect health and well-being.

Along the way, I read a lot of life histories and fell in love with older adults and aging research. I discovered that older adults were like living history books – I read about and talked to individuals who had come across the Plains in covered wagons, who had struggled with the Great Depression and hated Roosevelt, and someone who had almost been lynched in Georgia during World War II, despite serving as a soldier in the armed forces. I discovered that older adults had these rich, complex lives – and that everyone had a story to tell. I’ve done nearly 1,000 interviews with older adults – so many that I find that people often just walk up to me in the street and start telling me their life histories!”

What does your current research entail?

“My current work focuses on three areas: how personality, stress, coping and health changes with age; how psychosocial factors affect health; and stress-related growth and optimal aging.

About Jo Anne “Jody” Leonard Petersen ’47


Silverton, Ore.

Interesting fact

A Home Economics alumna, Jody met her husband-to-be, Donald, at an OSU student dance. He eventually became chairman of Ford Motor Company.

Why gerontology?

Jody became interested in gerontology when caring for her own aging parents. “At that time, I found very little research anywhere in the country,” she says. She soon set about changing that by supporting her alma mater.

The endowments

The Jo Anne Leonard Petersen Endowed Chair in Gerontology and Family Studies was established in 1995 and is held by School of Social and Behavioral Health Sciences Co-Director Karen Hooker. In 2011, the Jo Anne Leonard Endowed Director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research was established, funded by proceeds from two gift annuities valued together at $2 million. Karen Hooker formerly held this endowment, which has now been passed on to Carolyn Aldwin.

“I’m extraordinarily grateful to Jody Leonard Petersen’s vision to advance the field of gerontology. The possibility of a truly interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Aging Research was one of the big draws for our coming to Oregon State. I’m very excited by the possibility of working with the world-class researchers who are affiliated with CHAR to promote healthy aging and develop ways of extending the healthy lifespan. Older adults can be a tremendous resource for our society, and Jody’s generous gift will help realize this dream.” – Carolyn Aldwin, Jo Anne Leonard endowed director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research

What sparked your interest in this topic?

“As I mentioned earlier, it grew out of my interest in adult development. But it also was triggered by the whole interest in mind-body interactions that started in the 1960s and 1970s – one of the most fascinating fields in science by far!”

How will this make a difference?

“Several ways. Understanding how psychosocial stress affects physical health can and has led to better interventions in helping individuals deal with chronic illness and pain. Understanding stress-related growth is, to me, the key to understanding mental health. Given that everyone experiences stress at some point, why do some individuals develop lifelong scars from stress and trauma, and others manage to grow and develop? In truth, the two processes aren’t mutually exclusive – there is a correlation between PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and stress-related growth.”

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

Understanding how the mind and body are intertwined is fascinating to me, as is listening to individual’s stories, what they learned from their experience and how stress can lead to the development of wisdom.”

What do you hope is the outcome of your research?

“When I give talks about the positive aspects of stress, people come up to me and tell me their stories. They take heart from the idea that there are things they can do to accept and surmount their problems. Given the demographic transition – the aging of the Baby Boomers – it is also critically important to understand the ways in which individuals can improve their aging process and avoid or delay some of the disability that can make individuals’ late lives very difficult.”

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

“Yes, I have a great lab – my long-term colleague and husband, Rick Levenson, my post-doc Soyoung Choun and my current graduate students, Heidi Igarashi, Ritwik Nath and Jeff Proulx. I’m also starting up new research areas with some of the new faculty. Carolyn Mendez-Luck and I are writing a grant on stress, coping and health disparities in middle-age diabetics, and Rob Stawski and I are writing a pilot grant for the Roybal grant proposal, in collaboration with Larry Chen and Patrick Chiang in Engineering, on developing a continuous assessment of salivary cortisol and how it relates to psychosocial stress and cognition. And I’m working with Karen Hooker and the other great faculty in CHAR to write the Roybal proposal for a Center for Resilient Aging.”

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


“HDFS perspectives are important because it is one of the earliest fields that purposively took an interdisciplinary approach. As a field, we’ve known since the 1960s that this approach was absolutely necessary to solve biomedical and psychosocial problems. My training is in psychology, anthropology and sociology, with a strong emphasis on biological processes in aging. This gives me and other HDFS-ers a very broad perspective and an ability to talk to researchers in other disciplines and understand the similarities and differences in their perspectives.”

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

“Probably the best advice I received came from a fellow faculty member when I was at Davis. My normal coping mode is to try to fix things, and in this circumstance it just wasn’t working. She explained to me that most problems can and do solve themselves – so I stepped back and, in this instance, she was correct. The best coping, it seems to me, is a ju-jitsu approach – what is the minimum you can do and still affect a positive outcome? I still have difficulty stepping back from things, but learning to do so to get a better perspective is helpful.”

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

“Do something you love. You might need a day job to get yourself started, but life is too short to waste it on a job that doesn’t inspire you or provide meaning in your life. The folks who really enjoy what they do are the ones who usually have the best chance of rising to the top of their profession. Also, find work and life partners with whom you can share your dream – and participate in theirs.”

What are your favorite activities to do outside of work?

“Hiking with my dog, a little Sheltie named Ollie. Rick and I also do a lot of traveling – we went hiking in the Dolomites this summer and did a fantastic five-day hike through the Basque country in northern Spain, part of El Camino, a major pilgrimage route. I’m also an avid science fiction reader and love cooking.”

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