Also in this issue...

Two Psychologists Join APA’s Team at the United Nations

APA’s representatives work to bring psychological science and psychological perspectives to contribute to the development and implementation of UN documents, policies and initiatives.

By Amena Hassan

APA is an accredited non-governmental organization (NGO) at the United Nations (UN). This “special consultative” status at the UN allows APA to join the more than 2,000 NGOs at the UN who work to bring the voice of civil society to UN deliberations. APA does this by appointing representatives who are active in the UN in New York (5 representatives to the Economic and Social Council, 2 special project associates and 3 interns), in Geneva (1 representative) and in Vienna (1 representative). APA’s representatives work to bring psychological science and psychological perspectives to contribute to the development and implementation of UN documents, policies and initiatives. They also inform the APA membership about UN activities through reports, news articles, and convention programming.

APA is delighted to introduce two new members to the team, appointed for 5-year terms beginning in 2009 (see the complete roster).

Sherry Dingman, PhD, a professor at Marist College, and Susan Nolan, PhD, professor and Chair at Seton Hall University recently spoke with Psychology International to provide a synopsis of their backgrounds and the international experience that they bring to the UN team.

Dr. Sherry Dingman, Marist College

I graduated from the University of Montana, with a degree in biological psychology. I was a fellow of the APA minority program which helped with funding through NIMH for my dissertation research on cognitive laterality and differences between whites and American Indians, and the possible genetic basis for it. There were only two universities in Montana, so when I graduated, I moved to the east coast to take my first job as a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie. Marist has a great heritage of humanitarian projects so the administration is pleased with my UN appointment. Marist is primarily an undergraduate institution but we have a Masters program in psychology.

After arriving in New York I was contacted by a program officer at the National Institute on Drug Abuse who read an article based on my dissertation. He had lots of questions about susceptibility to addiction and whether I thought it was caused by genes or environment. I believe it is epigenetic, due to an interaction between the genes and the perinatal environment. The environment in the womb influences brain development. It sets us on a trajectory to equip us to live our lives in a certain kind of environment.

Maternal stress is a factor that influences the baby’s brain to wire itself in anticipation of a life lived in a certain kind of world. For example, metabolic functions may shift in anticipation of a short life span where it pays to have early puberty and be a risk taker - biologically speaking these are strategies for coping with a certain kind of environment.

Unfortunately, we have a lot of pregnant women in the world living under conditions that are stressful: refugee campus, urban inner city situations, and with abusive partners. These situations influence unborn children and have long lasting health effects. The National Institutes of Drug Abuse has funded my research, which is aimed at understanding how prenatal exposure to maternal drug use influences babies.

Being interested in women and infants, I’ve met many extraordinary women around the world. During Hurricane Mitch, I met a lady who delivered her baby during the hurricane. She was camped out on a bare hillside after her entire neighborhood washed away. Another mother I met in Kosovo was an ethnic Albanian Muslim who told me that a Serbian woman doctor delivered her baby during a night of NATO shelling, breaking her stereotype that all Serbs were bad people. Having been to West Africa many times, one of my ongoing projects is using technology to address the lack of nurses there, which contributes mightily to maternal and infant mortality. This summer I visited China after the earthquake to set up a project to treat PTSD. I’ve even been to Mongolia to give lectures to the staff at the state mental hospital. If there is a core value across the world it is the love that a mother has for her infant.

Lately I’ve become concerned about the security of people who are committed to helping others. The situation has changed since the origin of the Red Cross. It used to be that humanitarian aid workers had neutrality to protect them in conflict situations. Now even organizations like Doctors Without Borders finds its staff targeted and this bothers me, since I know how desperately some people in the world need help.

Psychology has a lot of potential to help people if we apply some of the things we’ve learned in our science. Part of the reason I’m excited about working in the UN is because of my friends who live in the developing world and who have really good ideas about what would prove helpful for them. I hope to get involved in one particular aspect of human rights, trafficking and slave labor issues. The issues are more complex than Westerners realize. On one level, of course it’s terrible that a family would sell their daughter to work at a cocoa plantation or as a domestic servant. But is that fate worse that remaining in a village in the midst of a famine and starving to death or suffering years of malnutrition? Many intractable problems in the world are complicated and they don’t have easy solutions. What I am sure of is that “we” can’t sit alongside the Hudson River and come up with workable solutions for “them” that will be effective. We need to hear from them, the people we want to help, and let their voices inform us.

I’m all for using technology in creative ways to cross the digital divide. We do a lot of online education in western countries but there is not the bandwidth for that in other places, notably sub-Saharan Africa. Instead, we could package the professors and send them digitally through I-pods and DVDs to Africa instead of having them log onto computers with no bandwidth. There are now MP3 players that are solar powered and MIT has put all kinds of curricula up online for free. I am all for giving away education in Africa because that is their great hope. Anyone who wants to donate a course for this should contact me via APA's International Office (and see article News from an International Scholar: Open Society Institute, this issue).

Dr. Susan Nolan, Seton Hall University

There are a few areas in which I might be able to contribute to the APA/UN team. One area is women and gender, since my professional experiences on several levels have been related to women and gender issues. Administratively I was the Director of Women’s Studies at Seton Hall between 2001 and 2005. I have two lines of research—one on gender differences in education and careers, specifically in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. My other line of research looks at interpersonal aspects of mental illness, particularly depression and anxiety and I look at the ways gender affects the perceptions of people with mental illness (the ways that stigma plays out differently for men and women).

As a professor I taught a course called Women, Society, and Culture which is a women’s studies class at Seton Hall, and I’ve also taught a course on women and psychology. In terms of an international policy perspective, when I did a sabbatical in Bosnia Herzegovina in 2005-2006, I worked with a number of local NGOs and one of them was called LiWoman (which is an English translation), a regional women’s rights association. I have also been on the Board of Trustees of the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault. So a lot of the issues I’ve worked with administratively, in teaching, research, and volunteer work are closely related to the work that is being done in the UN Committee on the Status of Women.

The 2008 Millennium Development Goals Report referred to statistical capacity building and the need for local and developing countries to gain statistical and research skills so they can transmit outcome findings to the larger community. A lot of countries do not have the capacity to conduct such research themselves and that is essentially what I was doing in Bosnia. I not only worked with LiWoman but with several other NGOs and with individuals serving in municipal government. I trained them to develop surveys, collect data, conduct statistical analyses, and then write up reports based on that. I’ve been in touch with some of them and they continue to do that—so seeing that continuation is really rewarding when you know you can help people develop that skill.

I’m thrilled to be an APA/UN representative. When I first saw the position posted it was the most excited I had been about a professional opportunity in a very long time. It feels like a perfect fit for what I want to do next and I feel honored to be part of the team. Ψ