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Photo courtesy of Kelly Miller

Kelly Miller is a doctoral student at the University of Southern California.


How we cope with stress and love

by Farahnaz Mohammed
April 24, 2014


At 24 years old, Kelly Miller already has an enviable career figuring out love and relationships. She is a recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation grant and is looking at how we understand ourselves through the context of relationships.

Named by Pacific Standard magazine as one of the top 30 thinkers under 30, she is pursuing her clinical psychology Ph.D. at the University of Southern California. 

 

Kelly is open, friendly and warm, eager to explain the complexities of her research. Here is her take on life in academia as a woman, what it was like to get a National Science Foundation fellowship and the implications her research may have for the future.

Give us the rundown: you study psychology, particularly relationships. What about human relationships most interests you?
 
My background is in something called attachment theory, and that talks about how different people understand relationships and themselves in the context of relationships. So, are other people comforting or threatening, am I good or bad, loveable or unlovable?
 
Depending on your beliefs, you might have different strategies for dealing with stress in a relationship. Some people might go to a relationship partner or a caregiver for comfort. Other people might withdraw because relationships are a dangerous place for them.

How do you translate emotions like the ones in relationships into terms that can be studied scientifically? And what chances does science, or your research, have for improving our own relationships with our loved ones?

There’s this newer measure that’s been published with this hormone, oxytocin. People talk about it as the ‘love’ hormone - it’s the hormone mothers release when they lactate, for example. Animal literature suggests that oxytocin calms us down in response to this other stress hormone, cortisol. At least when animals get stressed, they have this cortisol increase, and that triggers your body to have an oxytocin release, and that sort of calms you down. So stressful experiences in an interpersonal context can lead to bonding. What I hope to do in this next project is to see if that same regulatory mechanism happens in people.
 
But I’m really interested in is how that differs by attachment, how that differs by your beliefs about relationships. So for some people, having a stressful experience with a romantic partner might lead to big increases in cortisol but not the oxytocin that brings them down to baseline. For other people, they might get stressed but they can also get that big second spike in oxytocin to regulate themselves and so a difficult experience with a partner can be a bonding experience with a partner, and going to them for comfort will be rewarding.

Say, a married couple [has] a sick child. One partner might want space to themselves to calm down and the other partner wants to talk about it and calm down together. And that causes a lot of conflict if one person is like, "We need to talk about this together," and the other person saying, “Whatever, I don’t know, I don’t want to, give me space.” That might have even more under-the-skin physiological basis in how people view themselves in addition to their beliefs, so it’s kind of important to know what’s going on in those situations if we’re thinking about how to help people go through those types of situations.

What interested you in psychology initially?

I started out really interested in English, especially creative writing. And I took some introductory courses in literary criticism and theory and it just wasn’t appealing to me. I sort of came to realize that what I liked about literature was characters, and what I liked better than characters were actual people and I found psychology as a more rigorous, scientific way of understanding people…but I think for both of the things, it was people that drew me in.

How did you hear you’d gotten a National Science Foundation grant?


It’s kind of a funny story. I knew about when they were being announced and I got this message from my advisor that said, “Have you checked your e-mail from NSF?” And I checked my e-mail and I had nothing from NSF and I thought, “Is that, like, a mean way of telling me I didn’t get it? That’s so mean!”
But it’s also posted online, so I found it online and I found out I had gotten it, and it turns out the e-mail had gone into my spam folder. But it was very exciting!

Science has traditionally been a male-dominated field. How does it feel going as a woman going into such a high level in the sciences?

I think the closest thing I had to a misgiving about entering psychology was about the lifestyle of academia. It can require a very intense commitment in terms of time. I think in older generations, it was very difficult to be a woman and have a family and have an academic career. But I’ve been very fortunate to have several advisors along the way who have been able to show some balance, they could still have kids and achieve tenure and do all the things that I hope to do in my future.