Monthly Member Spotlight

Q&A with Erica L. O’Brien, PhD from University Park, PA.

Le Couteur

Q: How long have you been a GSA member? Why did you become a member and what type of involvement do you have?
A: I became a member of GSA nearly 7 years ago, in 2014, when I began my graduate training in lifespan developmental psychology at North Carolina State University. Perhaps like most ESPO members, I initially joined because I wanted to gain exposure to a diversity of research areas within the field of aging, continue to learn about new scientific developments in my own field, start building a professional network of colleagues and collaborators, and develop skills that allow me to become a better science communicator. My goals as a member of GSA have grown over time, especially during and after my transition into a postdoctoral position. For example, as GSA serves as my professional-organizational “home”, I have a growing interest in pursuing a leadership role in the BSS section ESPO.

Q: How has membership in GSA benefited you? 
A: Participating in the GSA’s annual conferences has had a huge impact on the development of my professional network, the scope of my collaborations, and the reach of my work. In terms of collaborations and reach, I have made new connections at these meetings that have led to the organization of future symposia for both GSA and other scientific meetings. My attending interest group meetings in recent years has also helped me expand my network as my research interests have evolved.

Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
A: I became interested in the field of aging very early on during my academic training. Inspired by coursework as well as a curiosity driven by anecdotal evidence, some of my earliest research experiences as an undergraduate focused on the subjective aging experiences of people from a racial and ethnic minority group. Years later, my interests in subjective aging continue to reflect one of many themes underlying some of my research. For instance, as part of the BSS-ESPO symposium “Promoting Behaviors that Support Healthy Aging” during the GSA’s 2020 annual meeting last November, I discussed some of my work that examines the impact of aging-related mindsets on older adults’ activity engagement.

Q: How do you feel GSA serves the field of gerontology and aging research? or Why is it important for other individuals to join GSA?
A: I think the GSA’s conferences and publications inspire new (interdisciplinary) gerontological research focused on links between social, psychological, and biological factors that improve our understanding of healthy aging. For example, I have observed an ever-growing interest (via special issues in publications as well as an increase in the number of poster sessions and symposia at conferences) in subjective aging and its links to culture and health. I also think that the GSA’s involvement as a leading organization of the Reframing Aging initiative represents an important step in advancing the field. During the 2019 in-person conference, I participated in a training workshop to learn about using reframed communication strategies. The workshop facilitated lively, interesting, and important discussions around the manifestations and impacts of ageism in our language and public discourse. I think that opportunities like these, which also align with the GSA’s objectives, play an important role in engaging multiple communities – including in research, practice, and education – to advocate for people of all ages.

Q: Are you a member of a GSA Interest Group? If so, which ones? 
A: I have recently started exploring different GSA interest groups, for example that on health behavior change.

Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
A: I currently have a position as a T32 Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Healthy Aging at Pennsylvania State University. The Pathways T32 Training Program at PSU is an NIA-funded program that offers training to predoctoral students and postdoctoral researchers in the psychosocial determinants and biological pathways that underlie healthy and unhealthy aging. I engage in regular seminars, participate in professional development activities, and have the opportunity to take courses and gain hands-on experience in innovative research methods. 

Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
A: Although a junior gerontologist myself, I have always appreciated the value of building community at both my academic institution and in my professional organizations. Some of the most meaningful learning and professional experiences I have had as a member of GSA came out of networking at annual meetings, from participating in pre-conference workshops or interest group meetings to attending talks outside of my area of expertise and engaging with presenters during or after sessions (and post-conference). Engaging fully in society meetings can have meaningful impacts on the professional development of early career scholars by fostering collaborations. It can also really enhance individuals’ experience as a GSA member by allowing them to connect with other members – and the broader scientific community – in different ways.

Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments.
A: I have been working with my T32 mentors on projects that address the pathways linking psychological factors to daily health and well-being in older adults. Some of my ongoing efforts specifically examine motivational and self-regulatory constructs and how they influence older adults’ activity engagement.

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