We are connected to each other. I want students to learn to identify what matters most to them, and to question their biases so they develop new belief systems and grow.

Jasmine A. Mena

Rebounding human spirit inspires Professor Jasmine Mena, psychology, so she wants her research to reinforce that spirit.

"My research has to have some kind of meaning — a positive effect on people," she says. "Especially for people who are vulnerable, marginalized or forgotten — people who don't have a voice or aren't routinely considered by mainstream psychology research."

Mena's inspiration comes from stories of people finding their way to happiness, despite tragedy.

"I was always intrigued by how people adapt despite difficult circumstances. Some people go through terrible things — wars, concentration camps — but somehow, they stay positive, find meaning in life, go on to form loving relationships and never stop growing," she says. "To explore that puzzle and foster resilience is interesting. How can you be helpful in a world that is so complex?"

Mena's research aims to improve health delivery systems that have gaps in certain populations.

"I look at how a person's culture influences the way they get health care," she says. "For a Spanish-speaking population, there might be a language barrier or other contextual issues. How does that manifest in their health outcomes? Why is a patient noncompliant? It might be a lack of health education, a psychosocial issue or that treatment does not consider their culture. I look for ways to provide information to the patient in a way they understand so the doctor can focus on doctoring."

Mena says students bring valuable knowledge to her classroom, and she integrates them into every phase of her research. She encourages empathy and curiosity about their connection to the world.

"We are connected to each other," Mena says. "I want students to learn to identify what matters most to them, and to question their biases so they develop new belief systems and grow."

Next, she plans to turn her eye on diversity initiatives at college campuses, where positive change has also brought challenges. She wants to build college communities from groups that still tend to separate.

"We might be surprised when there are misunderstandings or resentment, but we haven't done that much to avoid it — we just thrust people together," she says. "Campuses are just microcosms of broader society. I'm interested in the campus climate and helping students through the challenges they might experience — minority and majority students. Sometimes when you work on making a situation better for a small group — for example, underrepresented students — you end up making it better for everyone."

Posted Oct. 7, 2016