Getting to Know: Dr. Jennifer DeCicco

Holy Family University

An Assistant Professor of Psychology, Jennifer DeCicco, Ph.D., is one half of the team that is bringing Neuroscience to Holy Family University.

Dr. Jen DeCicco

A self-proclaimed brain geek, DeCicco brings her expertise to the classroom, letting students learn the inner workings of the brain through hands-on experiences. She sat down with Holy Family University to discuss her background, how she knew teaching was the right career path, and her classroom philosophy.

What made Psychology the right field for you?

In high school I was always interested in psychology, but I never took a psych course until college at Rider University. I took Biological Psychology as an undergraduate and I was hooked. I was an instant brain geek. In my junior year, a student had missed a lot of class and my professor asked if I would be willing to help her out and go through the material with her. The student told me that I was good at this and that I should be a professor. I had given it thought before and I enjoyed teaching, but never seriously. I knew I was going to go on to graduate school, but had yet to think about my goals post-graduate school. These experiences as an undergraduate confirmed that teaching was not only something I was passionate about, but also that it should be my career. I was fortunate to have a great mentor who really inspired me to teach. I’ve always had an interest in biology, but not the same interest as other members of my family. I grew up in a very science-oriented family. My dad is a research pharmacist and my brother studies prostate cancer, so everyone has their own thing. We all have different perspectives in science. As compared to my dad and my brother, my interest has always been in the brain and aging.

Can you tell me about some of your past and current research projects?

A lot of the projects and research I did throughout my undergraduate career asked questions about attention, aging, and physiology. When I went on to grad school, I continued with the same type of research program, but added an emotional component. I studied how individuals differ in the ability to regulate emotion, ranging from five-year-olds to 90-year-olds. Using electroencephalography (EEG), a noninvasive way to measure brain activity, my research projects and dissertation focused on how older adults and young children differ in how much they pay attention to positive, negative, and neutral stimuli using emotion regulation strategies. The big question is what characterizes adaptive versus maladaptive emotion regulation, which is associated with psychopathology and mood disorders.

I moved away from using EEG as my primary physiological measure, and now I use electrocardiography (ECG) to measure changes in heart rate. I am currently working on some analyses for a project that examines differences between college-aged students with and without ‘helicopter parents.’ The project aims to understand whether those with helicopter parents have greater physiological reactivity, as measured via ECG during a stress task, as compared to those who do not have helicopter parents. The goal is to understand whether having a helicopter parent plays a role in various outcomes from stress reactivity to depression and anxiety.

I started out with this really strong interest in physiology, the brain, and behavior. That’s always been the common theme throughout my academic career, from my undergraduate degree through graduate school and beyond. Though I am passionate about research and statistics, some of my projects are service learning-based. These projects teach older adults how to use emotion regulation strategies that are known to have positive effects on well being. My research projects, in combination with these service-learning opportunities, aim to explore how we can use emotion regulation strategies and physiological measures to develop an understanding of what characterizes positive well being. My goal is to use various characteristics to develop profiles of what skilled emotion regulation versus maladaptive regulation looks like across the lifespan. More importantly, if we know identify a profile of what skilled regulation looks like, how do we help train individuals who aren’t doing as well?

If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?

I can’t imagine not teaching. When deciding on my path for graduate school, my decision ultimately came down to whether I would have the opportunity to teach while in graduate school. The program I was in offered me a teaching fellowship, which was a perfect match for me. There has never been an aspect of my career that didn’t involve some sort of teaching. I began teaching undergraduate courses in my third year of grad school, and there hasn’t been a semester I have not taught since. I’ve always had an interest in teaching, and after I tutored that student, it sort of confirmed that this was what I was passionate about. It was her perspective that helped to confirm it, but I was fortunate to have really great teachers that helped me understand the importance of mentoring students. I’ve always sought to end up a school that valued this perspective. I kept gravitating towards small schools where I could continue to have that personal interaction with students that I had as an undergraduate. That’s what drew me to Holy Family University. There was a strong emphasis to know your students, have smaller classes, be able to work with students one-on-one, and engage students in critical thinking in and outside of the classroom.

What is your philosophy in the classroom? How do you get students to connect to the material on a personal level?

In my Physiological Psychology class, I try to do a lot of hands-on activities. I tell a lot of personal stories and try to relate everything we talk about to personal experiences, topics, and stories in the media and things the students can relate to. So for me, it’s about relating it back to topics the students understand and use on a daily basis. I use a lot of clinical examples and have students complete mini-labs during class even though it’s a lecture. Neuroanatomy can be difficult for students to grasp solely by looking at 2-D pictures on a screen, so I have students make models of the brain in class. It’s all about a hands-on experience to tie it back into what we learned. If it is something unique the students can relate too, I think they walk away with the knowledge.

What are some of your hobbies outside of the classroom?

Outside of the classroom, sports are a big thing in our family. I played soccer for 15 years, and now my daughter plays what can only be described as organized chaos on the soccer field right now. I play on a softball team with my husband in a co-ed league and we are avid Phillies fans. We enjoy all Philadelphia sports and spending family time together, whether it is out at the zoo or the ballpark.