In & Out of the Classroom With Vicki Helgeson
In 1990, Vicki Helgeson applied for her first job— a junior faculty position in the Psychology Department at Carnegie Mellon University. Helgeson, now a professor of psychology, has been here ever since, teaching and building an impressive program of health psychology research.
Helgeson explores how people adjust to chronic illnesses. She has studied individuals with breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease and, diabetes. A current project involves following children with and without Type 1 diabetes for more than ten years so that she can compare each group on factors like life satisfaction, school achievement and health.
She also recently received funding from the National Institutes of Health to study couples in which one person has Type 1 diabetes. This project is in its beginning stages, but Helgeson plans to investigate whether the partner with diabetes is healthier when the couple engages in “communal coping,” meaning that they choose to view the diabetes as a shared problem.
A major goal of both studies is to help people better manage their illnesses.
“There are things people with diabetes can do that really affect their health, so health psychologists have a lot of opportunities to intervene,” Helgeson explained. “But, if we don’t figure out what’s influencing how people take care of themselves, their illness is going to be more burdensome.”
In addition to conducting research, Helgeson has taught two courses—Social Psychology and Psychology of Gender—almost every year since she arrived at CMU. She says she thoroughly enjoys both, but that Social Psychology is especially exciting for her because many students in the course are not psychology majors.
“I feel like I can really make a difference in their lives,” she said. “Whether they become bankers, business people or biologists, it will help them to know how the situation influences their thoughts, feelings and behavior.”
For Psychology of Gender, Helgeson wrote her own textbook that combines cutting-edge research on both men and women’s psychology. She says that the course is unique from similar classes at other universities because her students spend a full third of the semester exploring how men and women’s psychology is connected to health.
Teaching these courses is just one of the many things that Helgeson enjoys about working at CMU. “It’s a great place to teach, it’s the perfect environment to conduct health psychology research, the staff is fantastic, and I enjoy involving bright, hard-working undergraduates in my research,” she said. “I always tell people that Carnegie Mellon is my first job, and it will be my last job because I love it here.”
By Laura Pacilio