HDFS Students

From psychology to HDFS, doctoral student examines health and well-being as we age

Dakota Witzel’s study found that our perception of aging and stress affect our physical health.

By Kathryn Stroppel

Dakota Witzel is a doctoral student in human development and family sciences and is currently receiving media attention for her study that found that our perception of aging and stress affect our physical health. She also was recently recognized by the Gerontological Society of America for her outstanding HDFS research poster.

Why did you want to come to Oregon State’s HDFS program?

When I attended a recruitment event in 2017, I found all of the faculty I interacted with were supportive and friendly. I also noticed all the graduate students I met were friendly and did not seem too stressed out.

I had the opportunity to meet the people I would be entering into the program with, and began to connect with other students. That was when I really decided I wanted OSU’s human development and family studies doctoral program to be my home. It was clear that the atmosphere was supportive and collaborative.

In fact, I had one conversation with Karen Hooker that stood out to me during that weekend. We were walking with a group to a planned event, and we were simply discussing life. Later that week, she emailed me and remembered distinct parts of that conversation – something no other faculty at any university I had interviewed at had done.

It was the environment and interactions with people during that recruitment event that made me want to attend, more than just the notoriety of the program itself.

What’s it like being a graduate student in HDFS?

Unique to our HDFS PhD program, it feels like I am not exactly a graduate student but a junior colleague to the faculty.

Many of us teach or are teaching assistants, and do research within our labs in addition to taking courses. We also get to practice the service aspect of academia by attending visiting lectures and collegewide events, helping peer review each other’s work and getting professional development, such as sitting on search committees for faculty hires or student committees for tenure and promotion, and helping mentor new students. We also have the opportunity to lead courses, publish manuscripts and work on research.

Tell me about your human development and family studies research. 

I work with Kelly Chandler, and my research broadly focuses on how daily stress processes within social relationships impact health and well-being in midlife and older adulthood. Our reactions to daily stressors are foundational to our daily health and well-being, and through that, our development.

For example, think about a time when you had an argument with a friend, family member or spouse. I’m interested in how the emotional reaction to that event lingered with you, why it lingered and how it impacts you both in the moment, that day and potentially years later.

I’m also particularly interested in how characteristics of these daily stressors might stop the emotional reactions from occurring, or how they might dampen the reactions you have.

Through the characteristics of these daily stressors, for example resolving the argument you had, and the characteristics of an individual, such as age and gender, I hope to gain an understanding of what makes these daily stressors so impactful for health and well-being, and for whom. I’ve utilized a number of longitudinal and daily diary data to explore these topics and hope to collect my own data at some point.

What motivates you to do this type of HDFS research?

We often hear about big traumatic events that change the trajectory of a person’s life completely. Take, for example, an event like the COVID-19 pandemic; research is being published every day about the impact we are seeing with such a large, worldwide stressor. But we don’t live our lives from traumatic event to traumatic event. We live our lives from day-to-day, and our daily life eventually creates changes in our lives.

There’s plenty of research out there that considers daily life to be crucial, especially in older adulthood with regard to broad concepts such as overall health and well-being.

One thing that we teach in our adult development class is that when we look back at our lives, it’s clear how much we change, but in the day- to- day, we don’t realize those minor, incremental and dynamic changes.

I started out in psychology in my undergraduate career and then transitioned into HDFS. Both programs, however, have a focus to better people’s lives.

What better way to help people than to understand what they are going through in daily life and how to make daily living even just a little bit better?

What projects are you involved with on campus, research-related or otherwise? 

I have worked with two research labs in addition to my previous advisor’s lab.

In the first, I helped explore how positive youth development occurs and the impact youth leaders have on that development.

In the second, I published a manuscript related to how perceived stress and physical health symptomatology was moderated by how we perceive our own aging. In my previous research lab, with Robert Stawski, we worked on applying for NIH research grants exploring daily stress processes and health.

I also attend bi-weekly meetings focused on anti-racism in research and academia, a student-led group within John Geldhof’s lab that began almost two years ago.

What’s your vision for the future, and how will you achieve it? 

Great question! I’m not exactly sure what I envision a future to look like, in terms of a broader community.  

I think on some level I have hopes that health and well-being will be considered important across individual, community and other public spheres both at a daily level and in terms of development.

I think the future should involve health equity and providing for the populations who need it most in a way that is consistent with the culture and wants of the community they are involved in.

And, if that’s my overarching vision, I think continuing the work that I’m doing will help achieve that on some level; however, I also think pressure on both the political and the public to take the research we do — public health, human development and family studies, kinesiology, etc. — more seriously is needed to be able to truly make this vision a reality. 

What are your future plans beyond OSU? 

My next step is to get a post-doctoral position. While my time at OSU has been wonderful, I know there are opportunities to help me continue to grow before I apply for tenure track positions. Ultimately, however, that is my goal. I am an academic through and through and can’t imagine my life without academia! 

Do you have any advice for prospective students in the field?

I would say, don’t be afraid to fight for the work-life balance that works for you. As new graduate students, we often want to say yes to everything that’s offered to us, and learning when you have too much on your plate will be really important. Sometimes, we learn our limit in graduate school, and that’s OK.

Most of us move to a new area for our graduate careers. Don’t be afraid to take the weekends off to explore when you feel comfortable doing so. Don’t be afraid to put a hard deadline on the times in which you work. Most importantly, put yourself and your own well-being ahead of the program.

Also, as a prospective student, don’t be afraid to reach out to faculty and other graduate students. If you’re nervous, start with a compliment.  

And finally, don’t forget to ask or look for scholarship opportunities upon acceptance or application waivers for program applications. Not all programs offer these things, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to any of the graduate students listed on the website.

Learn more about Oregon State’s human development and family studies doctoral program. Request information.