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Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative

Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative

Illinois is home to some of the foremost social and behavioral sciences experts in the world, but because they are dispersed across the university (in at least 45 different departments), no single college or unit represents their interests. The OVCR has launched a new initiative to explore how to facilitate large-scale, interdisciplinary research projects that leverage our social and behavioral sciences expertise and support the next generation of researchers in the field. 

Read an Association for Psychological Science article about the SBSRI, "Building Better Science Means Breaking Down Barriers."

Click here to see the results of the SBSRI survey given to social and behavioral sciences faculty.

2017 Small Grant Awardees

Assessing the Impact of Neighborhood Food Environment on Diet and Health among Physically and Psychosocially Vulnerable Children and Adults

Ruopeng An, PhD, MPP, Kinesiology and Community Health
Craig Gundersen, PhD, Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
Zaheeda Darvesh, Extension

Over the past decade, the media, politicians, practitioners, and researchers paid increasing attention to the role neighborhood food environment played in people’s nutrient intake, diet quality, and waistline. Several population-level policy interventions have been implemented, such as the zoning regulation that limits establishment of new fast-food restaurants in Southern Los Angeles, and a multimillion-dollar public and private investment to build new supermarkets nationwide. The rationale of these policies has been based on the “food desert hypothesis”—proximity to fast-food outlets and convenience/corner stores results in lower diet quality and overeating, whereas proximity to large supermarkets has a protective effect due to its provision of various healthy food options such as fresh produce. To date, scientific evidence linking neighborhood food environment to individuals’ dietary behavior and body weight status at best remains mixed and inconclusive.

Among many factors that may lead to the null findings on the impact of neighborhood food environment, differential susceptibility to and dependency upon the food environment across population subgroups is particularly intriguing and policy-relevant. Physically and psychosocially vulnerable individuals could be influenced disproportionately by the immediate food environment surrounding their residence, primarily due to lack of access to transportation, mobility impairment, and/or intellectual disability that restrain their grocery shopping behavior.

Investigating the role of neighborhood food environment on physically/psychosocially vulnerable individuals could inform the design and implementation of targeted policy interventions that address their specific nutritional needs. The short-term goal of the study is to examine the influence of neighborhood food environment on physically and psychosocially vulnerable individuals, and compare the estimated impact to that of the general population and their less-vulnerable counterparts. The long-term goal is to design, implement, and assess interventions that adequately address the nutritional needs of these highly susceptible population subgroups.

A Nuanced Model for Recognizing Levels of Conflict in Decision Making Using Natural Language Processing

Suma Bhat, PhD, Electrical and Computer Engineering
Marshall Scott Poole, PhD, Communication

The ability to leverage massive amounts of written language using natural language processing (NLP) techniques enables us to make sense of the world around us in unprecedented ways. Coding and content analysis of texts, like transcripts of group decision making interaction and newspaper articles, are some of the most important analysis methods available to the behavioral and social sciences. These techniques have been used to: study errors in decision making deliberations that lead to disastrous wars, diagnose mental illness, study political agendas available through the media, and understand the causes behind airplane and train accidents, among other things.

However, manual coding and content analysis are highly resource-intensive, often requiring hundreds of hours of work for relatively small datasets. Additionally, although computational methods have been applied to content analysis for many years, they generally involve the analysis of word counts and n-grams (sets of n words that co-occur) to find patterns. Applications based on word counts from a pre-defined dictionary can tell us a good deal about discourse, but they leave out much of the nuance required to make finer judgments about the function and meaning of communicative acts. This requires a higher level of sophistication in the language patterns than current machine applications are able to provide.

We propose to develop a prototypical framework for automatically coding levels of conflict in transcribed interactions using NLP approaches so that aspects such as the flow of ideas, conversational dynamics, and group balance in small groups can be studied in ways that have better agreement with manual analyses.

Microbiome-Gut-Brain-Axis in Mothers and their Preschool Children: Attachment, Nutrition, and Implications for Socioemotional and Cognitive Outcomes: A Pilot Study

Kelly Bost, PhD, Human Development and Family Studies
Florin Dolcos, PhD, Psychology
Sanda Dolcos, PhD, Psychology
Sharon Donovan, PhD, RD, Food Sciences and Human Nutrition
Barbara Fiese, PhD, Human Development and Family Studies
Wendy Heller, PhD, Psychology
Salma Musaad, MD, PhD, Human Development and Family Studies

The role of the gut microbiota in regulating psychosocial, neurocognitive, and metabolic processes is widely accepted, and growing evidence suggests bi-directional communication between gut microbiota and the brain. Specific mechanisms involved in this communication have only begun to be elucidated and include the vagus nerve, immune system, and microbial neurometabolite production. The impact of the microbiota-gut-brain-axis (MGBA) on stress-related physiology, in particular, is gaining interest because dysregulated stress responses and related cognitions are implicated in a wide range of mental and physical health outcomes. Pivotal work with animals has demonstrated 1) the critical role of gut microbiota in early programming of the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis and in modulating social stress reactivity and behaviors; 2) that psychosocial stress across the lifespan can alter microbiota composition; and 3) that changes in microbial composition can affect stress reactivity and depression.

Evidence of this bi-directionality in humans is scarce, but preclinical data support associations between microbial composition, emotion regulation and neurocognitive function in adults. Studies examining links between emotion, cognition, and gut microbiota in human samples are needed for developing mechanistic models of the MGBA. Importantly, a comprehensive understanding of these associations in relation to the strong impact of diet on gut microbiota and emotion, as well as interpersonal factors that have robust effects on emotional, attentional, and behavioral response patterns, is crucial.

In this pilot project, data from the Strong Kids 2 Program will be leveraged to examine the gut microbiota of mothers and their 24-month old children, and how microbial composition is related to psychosocial and executive function assessments. Neural correlates of microbial diversity and community structure in mothers will be explored. The long-term goal is to explicate multi-level influences on developing and changing microbial composition and diversity, and consequences of the MGBA for socioemotional, neurocognitive, and health outcomes in children and adults.

Establishing an Illinois Twin Project

Daniel A. Briley, PhD, Psychology
Kristen L. Bub, PhD, Educational Psychology
John P. Caughlin, PhD, Communication
Joseph R. Cohen, PhD, Psychology
Jaime Derringer, PhD, Psychology
R. Chris Fraley, PhD, Psychology
Benjamin L. Hankin, PhD, Psychology
Aleksander J. Ksiazkiewicz, PhD, Political Science
Ruby Mendenhall, PhD, Sociology
Christopher M. Napolitano, PhD, Educational Psychology
Eva Pomerantz, PhD, Psychology
Kelly M. Tu, PhD, Human Development and Family Studies
Yilan Xu, PhD, Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

Unraveling the interplay between genetic influences and environmental contexts remains a central impediment to progress in the behavioral sciences. Individuals have different liabilities for illness partially due to genetic processes, partially due to past life experiences or health behaviors, and partially due to the interplay of these features of development. Twin and family studies offer a powerful tool to unravel the interconnected influences of genes and environments to address important questions that are often confounded in non-genetically informative designs.

The primary objective of this research is to establish an Illinois Twin Project. We intend to form a developmental cohort for future interdisciplinary work across psychology, political science, economics, sociology, and communication.

The long-term goal of this work is to establish a cohort of interested families which will be followed over time to track pathways of healthy child development. Twin and family methodology offers improved inferential power for many research questions. In addition, the current project would take seriously the family aspect of twin and family studies. Parents provide crucial social inputs for children, and a genetically informative design allows for parsing the bi-directional influence between parents and children. Beyond parents, children are situated within neighborhoods, schools, and regions. A key goal of the project will be understanding the effect of inequality in terms of economics and opportunity.

Children in The Wild: Engineering Tools to Capture Child Development in Real-World Contexts

Nancy McElwain, PhD, Human Development and Family Studies
Harley Johnson, PhD, Mechanical Science and Engineering
Eva Pomerantz, PhD, Psychology
Kristen Bub, PhD, Educational Psychology
Laura Hahn, PhD, Speech and Hearing Sciences
Jennifer Bernhard, PhD, Engineering

During early development, dynamic transactions between children and their environment are posited to shape brain structure and function, physical and mental health, and cognitive and academic functioning. Early experiences with caregivers often set children on trajectories of psychological adjustment or maladjustment that can be difficult to alter.

Our understanding of the processes by which the dynamic transactions between children and their environment guide development is limited by some methodological challenges. Development is: 1) fueled by a child’s repeated, real-time interactions with caregivers over time, but observational assessments of child-caregiver interactions can be brief and have static study designs; 2) characterized by continuous transactions at multiple levels of analysis, but typical methods and approaches assess constructs in isolation from one other, with limited capability to capture dynamic patterns that emerge across levels of analysis; and 3) intertwined with the real-world contexts in which it occurs, but developmental studies are often carried out in controlled laboratory settings or in naturalistic contexts where assessments are brief and researchers are present.

Our overarching aim is to develop remote, unobtrusive methods to simultaneously capture physiological and behavioral streams of data on a large scale among young children and their caregivers in everyday, natural environments. To this end, our specific aims include designing a child-appropriate, unobtrusive apparatus that embeds sensors and devices to collect and synchronize multiple streams of physiological and behavioral data.

Our project will afford methodological innovations that will have the potential to transform the types of questions that can be advanced about dynamic processes underlying development. Ecologically valid and noninvasive assessments will contribute to the identification of individual differences that set children on varying trajectories of psychological adjustment or maladjustment. In the long term, such assessments could serve as mechanisms of preventive screening and/or intervention for children at risk.

An Interdisciplinary Analytical Framework to Understand Socioeconomic and Cultural Contexts for Delivery of Safe Water, Sanitation, and Resource Management in Refugee Settlements and Host Communities in Uganda

Assata Zerai, PhD, Sociology
Teresia Olemako, PhD, Geography & Geographic Information Science (GGIS)
Rebecca Morrow, Ph.D. Student, Sociology
Jeremy Guest, PhD, Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE)

Global humanitarian crises have resulted in the forcible displacement of 65.3 million people, including 21.3 million refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) seeks to safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees by encouraging host countries to create conditions conducive to the peaceful resolution of disputes and protection of human rights. To achieve this, UNHCR relies on cooperation from States, but many host States have severe resource limitations and are the least developed countries in the world. In Uganda, host to the 8th largest number of refugees, these resource challenges are extensive, yet it is considered one of the world’s most favorable refugee environments.

Uganda currently hosts a disproportionately high number of women and children, and holistic solutions are required to meet the needs of these vulnerable populations. One area of profound importance concerns water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) needs that are not being met in refugee settlements. Not only are women and girls the predominant providers of water in households, but a lack of adequate WASH has direct effects on childhood morbidity and child nutrition. Providing WASH technologies to residents in a refugee settlement requires a better understanding of the lived experiences of women and children as they navigate micro-aggressions from the resident population and structural inequality that may demote their needs within already distressed social, political, and economic systems.

The project’s specific objectives are to: (1) understand the socioeconomic and cultural context, (2) conduct feminist qualitative analysis of lived experiences of women refugees, including experiences of marginalization due to ethnocentrism, (3) identify stakeholders in a Ugandan refugee settlement and host community, (4) develop bottom-up solutions and a plan for engagement to increase inclusiveness, and (5) intentionally partner with female scholars in Uganda to establish a framework to develop affordable, deployable WASH solutions, and enable meaningful integration among engineering, business, and the social and natural sciences.

Funding opportunities in the Social and Behavioral Sciences

NIH Funding (Standard Deadlines)

NICHD Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant

The NICHD Exploratory/Developmental Grant program supports exploratory and developmental research projects that fall within the NICHD mission by providing support for the early and conceptual stages of these projects. These studies may involve considerable risk but may lead to a breakthrough in a particular area, or to the development of novel techniques, agents, methodologies, models, or applications that could have a major impact on a field of biomedical, behavioral, or clinical research.

Full announcement for the R21 here.

Leveraging Existing Cohort Studies to Clarify Risk and Protective Factors for Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Dementias (R01)

The NIH invites applications that will combine multiple cohorts in order to improve statistical power and clarify risk and protective factors for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD).

Full announcement here.

Methodology and Measurement in the Behavioral and Social Sciences

The NIH seeks applications aimed at improving and developing methodology in the behavioral and social sciences through innovations in research design, measurement, data collection and data analysis techniques.

Full announcements for the R21here.

Systems Science and Health in the Behavioral and Social Sciences

The NIH seeks applications that are applied or basic in nature, have a human behavioral or social science focus, and employ methodologies suited to addressing the complexity inherent in behavioral and social phenomena, referred to as systems science methodologies.

Full announcements for the R21 here.

Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) of Genomic Research

The NIH seeks applications that propose to study the ethical, legal, and social implications of human genome research. Areas of research interest include genomic research, genomic health care, broader societal issues, and legal, regulatory, and public policy issues.

Full announcements for the R03 here and R21 here.

Improving Quality of Care and Quality of Life for Persons with Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias at the End of Life

The NIH invites applications that address clinical and translational gaps in the study of end-of-life care needs of people with Alzheimer's disease or related dementias (ADRD) and their families.

Full announcement for the R01 here and R03 here.

Addressing Health Disparities in NIDDK Diseases

The NIH invites research projects to improve understanding of the causes of high priority diseases in the United States and reducing/eliminating health disparities.

Full announcement for the R01 here.

Improving Individual and Family Outcomes through Continuity and Coordination of Care in Hospice

The NIH seeks to stimulate research that focuses on reducing negative individual and family outcomes related to unwanted transitions at the end of life and optimizing the individual and family outcomes related to high quality coordination of care of care of individuals who are enrolled in hospice.

Full announcement for the R01 here and the R21 here.

Addressing the Etiology of Health Disparities and Health Advantages Among Immigrant Populations

The NIH seeks to support innovative research to understand uniquely associated factors (biological, behavioral, sociocultural, and environmental) that contribute to health disparities or health advantages among U.S. immigrant populations.

Full announcement for the R01 here and the R21 here.

Addressing Health Disparities through Effective Interventions among Immigrant Populations

The NIH seeks to to support innovative research to develop and implement effective interventions to address health disparities among U.S. immigrant populations.

Full announcement for the R01 here and the R21 here.

Strengthening the HIV Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) Care Continuum through Behavioral, Social, and Implementation Science

The NIH encourages behavioral, social, and implementation science research designed to (a) identify gaps in the HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) care continuum and associated determinants; (b) develop and test interventions to strengthen PrEP delivery, use, and outcomes; and (c) reduce racial/ethnic and age-related disparities in PrEP uptake and use.

Full announcement for the R01 here and R21 here.

Targeted Basic Behavioral and Social Science and Intervention Development for HIV Prevention and Care

The NIH encourages novel, high impact behavioral and social science research that will contribute to empirically-based HIV risk-reduction and care-improvement approaches that could be used for prevention, improved clinical outcomes, and cure.

Full announcement for the R01 here and R21 here.

Reducing Overscreening for Breast, Cervical, and Colorectal Cancers among Older Adults

The NIH seeks to promote research on interventions, based in healthcare settings, designed to reduce overscreening for breast, cervical, or colorectal cancers among average-risk older adults.

Full announcement for the R01 here and R21 here.

Chronic Condition Self-Management in Children and Adolescents

The NIH seeks to encourage research to improve self-management and quality of life in children and adolescents with chronic conditions. This FOA encourages research that takes into consideration various factors that influence self-management such as individual differences, biological and psychological factors, family/caregivers and sociocultural context, family-community dynamics, healthcare system factors, technological advances, and the role of the environment.

Full announcement for the R01 here and R21 here.

Formative and Pilot Intervention Research for Prevention and Treatment of HIV/AIDS

This NIH announcement encourages formative research, intervention development, and pilot-testing of interventions. Primary scientific areas of focus include the feasibility, tolerability, acceptability and safety of novel or adapted interventions that target HIV prevention or treatment.

Full announcement here.

Reducing Health Disparities Among Minority and Underserved Children

This initiative encourages research that targets the reduction of health disparities among children. Specific targeted areas of research include bio-behavioral studies that incorporate multiple factors that influence child health disparities such as biological, lifestyle factors, environmental, social, economic, institutional, and cultural and family influences; studies that target the specific health promotion needs of children with a known health condition and/or disability; and studies that test, evaluate, translate, and disseminate health promotion prevention and interventions conducted in traditional and non-traditional settings.

Announcement for R01 here and R21 here.

Environmental Exposures and Health: Exploration of Non-Traditional Settings

The purpose of this funding opportunity announcement (FOA) is to encourage interdisciplinary research aimed at promoting health, preventing and limiting symptoms and disease, and reducing health disparities across the lifespan for those living or spending time in non-traditional settings (i.e. playgrounds and nursing homes).

Announcement for R21 here.

NIH Funding (Other Deadlines)

Advanced Laboratories for Accelerating the Reach and Impact of Treatments for Youth and Adults with Mental Illness (ALACRITY) Research Centers (Deadline: Letter of intent due 30 days prior to the application due date; application due May 17, 2018)

Advanced Laboratories for Accelerating the Reach and Impact of Treatments for Youth and Adults with Mental Illness (ALACRITY) Research Centers will support the rapid development, testing, and refinement of novel and integrative approaches for (1) optimizing the effectiveness of therapeutic or preventive interventions for mental disorders within well-defined target populations; (2) organizing and delivering optimized mental health services within real world treatment settings; and (3) continuously improving the quality, impact, and durability of optimized interventions and service delivery within diverse care systems.

Full announcement for the P50 here.

Ancillary Studies to Identify Behavioral and/or Psychological Phenotypes Contributing to Obesity (Deadline: Letter of intent due 30 days prior to the application due date; application due February 28, 2018, June 28, 2018, and February 28, 2019)

The purpose of this Funding Opportunity Announcement (FOA) is to encourage grant applications to support the addition of measures of psychological and/or behavioral constructs or weight-related variables (e.g.; BMI, body composition) to existing or new research studies in humans with the goal of elucidating behavioral or psychological phenotypes that explain individual variability in weight trajectory or response to obesity prevention or treatment interventions. The intent is to support the addition of new measurement in domains other than those covered in the parent grant as a means of elucidating the behavioral and psychological factors that may explain individual differences in weight status.

Full announcement for the R01 here.

Other Funding Agencies

Early Career Funding and Seed Grants Offered by the American Psychological Foundation (Varying deadlines)

The APF is offering early career funding and seed funding to support projects and programs that use psychology to solve social problems.

See more information here.

NSF Funding for Science, Technology, and Society (STS) (Deadline: February 2, 2018)

The Science, Technology, and Society (STS) program supports research that uses historical, philosophical, and social scientific methods to investigate the intellectual, material, and social facets of the scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) disciplines. It encompasses a broad spectrum of STS topics including interdisciplinary studies of ethics, equity, governance, and policy issues that are closely related to STEM disciplines, including medical science.

Full announcement here.

NSF Funding for Science of Learning (SL) (Deadline: January 17, 2018; July 11, 2018)

The Science of Learning program supports potentially transformative basic research to advance the science of learning. The goals of the SL Program are to develop basic theoretical insights and fundamental knowledge about learning principles, processes and constraints.

Full announcement here.

NSF Funding for Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) (Deadline: November 6, 2017)

The Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program seeks to advance new approaches to and evidence-based understanding of the design and development of STEM learning in informal environments; provide multiple pathways for broadening access to and engagement in STEM learning experiences; advance innovative research on and assessment of STEM learning in informal environments; and develop understandings of deeper learning by participants.

Full announcement here.


COSA Rankings
Illinois is #28 in federally supported R&D expenditures in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. 
See complete rankings here 

Past and Present Social Science Accomplishments
Illinois faculty have been at the forefront of work that has shaped modern society:

  • Shaped US policy on financial statements
  • Established the first doctoral program in accountancy
  • Taught the world how to design surveys (Seymour Sudman)
  • Revolutionized marketing research (Jagdish Sheth)
  • Codified the role of human innovation in the face of environmental problems (Julian Simon)
  • Revolutionized organ donation (Al Roth)
  • Shaped US retirement policy (Jeff Brown)
  • Defined the study of how wars escalate (Vasquez & Althaus)
  • Showed that the brain is plastic (Greenough)
  • Established the scientific study of subjective well-being (or “happiness”; Diener)
  • Defined the field of psychometrics (Cronbach, Tucker, Cattell, Osgood)
  • Pioneered the field of community psychology (Rappaport)
  • Discovered the major pillars of culture (Triandis)
  • Demonstrated that personality can change even in old age (Roberts)
  • Transformed conservation science with the economic analysis of land management (Ando)
  • Conducts seminal research on important social programs, such as food stamps (Gundersen)
  • Provide advice to organizations like the World Bank, OECD, Social Security Administration, and the President of the United States (a few of us)

Steering Committee Members

  • Brent Roberts, Psychology, Chair
  • Kristen Bub, Educational Psychology
  • Kara Federmeier, Psychology
  • Craig Gundersen, Agricultural & Consumer Economics
  • Hillary Klonoff-Cohen, Kinesiology & Community Health
  • Christopher Larrison, Social Work
  • Robert Lawless, Law
  • Jeffery Mondak, Political Science
  • Silvina Montrul, Linguistics
  • Andrew Orta, Anthropology
  • Brian Quick, Communication
  • Rebecca Sandefur, Sociology
  • Patrick Vargas, Advertising

Faculty Publications and Achievements

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