Rachael Ellison on racism and cognitive functioning, challenging political conversations, and how mentoring programs affect mentors

The Chronicle spoke to Dr. Rachael Ellison about her training as a community and clinical psychologist, her diverse projects ranging from neuropsychology to measuring outcomes of mentoring programs on mentors, and how a faculty mentor acquired during her undergraduate studies helped get her to where she is today.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the research you are currently working on?

Currently, I am an Assistant Professor at Illinois Institute of Technology in the Department of Psychology, and incoming Chair of the Women in Neuropsychology Committee of the Society for Clinical Neuropsychology (SCN; APA Division 40). I also work as a clinical neuropsychologist in private practice through Chicago Neuropsychology Group, conducting neuropsychological evaluations and cognitive rehabilitation. As for my clinical training, I completed clinical internship through the UCSD/VA San Diego Healthcare System (with specialized rotations in neuropsychology, TBI, cognitive rehabilitation, and PTSD), and post-doctoral fellowship in clinical neuropsychology through Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital, while also engaging in post-doctoral research at Northwestern University throughout my fellowship. I earned my Ph.D. in Clinical/Community Psychology from DePaul University focused on reducing systemic injustice and improving the lives of marginalized individuals/groups (e.g., through research on racial privilege, increasing openness to diversity and cultural competence, engaging individuals and groups from privileged backgrounds in social justice work). Prior to graduate school, I spent a year working at Center for Companies that Care, a non-profit in Chicago, through Northwestern’s Public Interest Program. My experiences there, and with their AIM High mentoring program which paired Chicagoland youth with teams of corporate mentors, sparked my initial interest in mentoring research. However, as I went through graduate school, my clinical training and interests later shifted to clinical neuropsychology. Now, my current research merges my background and interest in social justice/community psychology with cognitive neuroscience/neuropsychology.

In one study I’m currently working on, I’m exploring the cognitive burden of race-based code-switching in a virtual format. This research aims to move beyond our understanding of the impact of stereotype threat on cognitive and neuropsychological test performance, to gain a more nuanced understanding of how other aspects of race-based stressors may impact cognitive functioning. Specifically, research documents an understanding of the implication of stereotype threat when majority examiners conduct testing with minority patients, but little is understood about other situational and contextual factors that may inadvertently impact cognitive performance and neuropsychological testing data. Having a better understanding of the potential cognitive load of racial code-switching has significant implications for racial/ethnic minority individuals across settings, and provides a more nuanced understanding of the insidious impact of systemic racism. In addition, with the rapidly changing environments due to COVID-19 (e.g., shifting to virtual videoconferencing, e-learning and telehealth formats), it becomes even more crucial to understand how additional factors may disproportionally impact marginalized groups who are already unequally negatively impacted during the pandemic. There is little known about how these new social situations (i.e., group videoconferencing) may cause additional stressors to marginalized communities, as we know this type of social format more generally causes increased stress (e.g., “Zoom Fatigue”). Prior to eliminating racism, stigma and prejudice, as well as instituting changes in policy to address these issues, it is crucial to have a full and nuanced understanding of the scope and impact of systemic racism. The potential cognitive burden of race-based code switching holds significant implications for industrial organizational psychology (e.g., in the workplace), educational psychology (e.g., in schools), as well as clinically with patients and providers in the field of clinical psychology/neuropsychology. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we are being quickly pushed towards transitioning education instruction, workplace meetings, clinical practice, social interactions, etc. to various videoconference formats. Across contexts, it becomes crucial to understand the implications of this shift, particularly for marginalized groups.

In a second study,  I aim to test potential short-term, low-effort interventions on increasing empathic understanding to diverse viewpoints. It is a huge benefit to society to have citizens who are willing and able to engage in dialogue with diverse others. Diversity in viewpoints, experiences and ideas are a significant strength across settings (e.g., in business, science, education, etc.). However, there are processes that interfere with one’s ability to calmly and rationally continue to engage in conversations with diverse others and viewpoints. This process has been highlighted in the research particularly when it comes to the neural correlates of engaging in challenging social/political discourse. Namely, that one’s frontal systems (e.g., that govern inhibition, rational/logical thinking, etc.) begin to “shut down,” and the amygdala, a key emotional region of the brain, increases in neural firing. This process is inherently challenging for having calm, rational conversations with diverse others and viewpoints along “hot-button” topics, and can result in variety of less ideal outcomes (e.g., becoming too emotionally aroused to have a productive conversation about the topic at hand; shutting down completely; actively avoiding those types of conversations and/or people in the future). As our society becomes more fiercely polarized particularly around social/political issues, it becomes even more important to better understand ways to mitigate this process that occurs naturally in our brains during these types of challenging conversations. This study aims to not only begin to test some potential short-term, low-effort interventions on increasing empathic understanding to diverse viewpoints, but also to better understand the role of executive functioning (i.e., a cognitive domain centralized in our frontal lobe), and the process of staying emotionally regulated during challenging social/political conversations.

I also am continuing collaborations I began while on fellowship with Dr. Emma Adam at Northwestern University on the Biology, Identity and Opportunity (BIO) study, overseeing the cognitive portion of this longitudinal study. The study aims to explore the impact of race-based stress (e.g., perceived racial discrimination) on cognitive, academic performance, stress biology (e.g., cortisol daily rhythms and sleep hours and quality), and social functioning.  

In addition to my collaborations at Northwestern, I am currently collaborating on a number of other studies related to my clinical interests (e.g., cognitive rehabilitation; traumatic brain injury; impact of the microbiome, inflammation, and vascular health on cognitive functioning). I am currently working on two studies through the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at IIT that look to assess, in part, the impact of various dietary interventions on cognitive functioning (e.g., via changes in the microbiome; improvements in vascular functioning; reduction in systemic inflammation and oxidative stress, etc.). I am also collaborating on research at Edward Hines, Jr., VA Hospital on a number of studies related to cognitive rehabilitation as well as traumatic brain injury in Veterans.

Have mentoring relationships played a role in your life at all?

A wonderful mentor, Brad Olson, stepped up and helped me through the overwhelming graduate school selection and application process. He was likely the most influential mentor I have ever had, and without his mentoring and guidance I likely would not be in the field I am today. It started when I was attending a women’s networking event while I was an undergraduate student at Northwestern, in hopes of figuring out what on earth I should do after college. I had struck up a conversation with a faculty attendee on the way out of the event, and as we were both headed to the restroom, we continued our conversation, (quite awkwardly), through the stalls. “You need to meet my officemate, he’s a community psychologist.” It was a field I had never heard of before, but I soon learned was a perfect blend of my interests and experiences at the time (e.g., the opportunity to go beyond individual change to focus on systemic injustice, sociopolitical action, and creating more macro-level societal change). The next week she introduced me to this ‘officemate’, Brad Olson. Although Brad had never met me before, he immediately offered to take me under his wing. He connected me to datasets to start engaging in my own research, took time to meet individually to provide mentorship and scaffolding (even through the summer months), and connected me with other students and faculty in the field to gain my first experiences presenting at conferences. He helped me narrow down my search when applying to doctoral programs, and supported me not once, but two years in a row (after I was not accepted in my first year applying to programs). When I finally received offers, Brad went back and forth with me on the phone providing advice and a sounding board as I made a decision that I knew would impact the rest of my life.

Why is it important to look at the effects of mentoring on mentors too, not just mentees?

I think there are two major factors at play, that help to highlight why it is crucial to look at the effects of mentoring on not only the mentees, but the mentors as well.

Even just acknowledging that mentoring relationships are bidirectional is an important first step, and helps to recognize that mentors, though with their own experiences and wisdom, have a lot to gain from mentoring relationships. Coming from an Asset Based Community Development framework, when coming from a place of privilege and power, it is important to step back and recognize what assumptions you are coming in with, and work to recognize and build upon the inherent strengths in the communities and individuals you are working with. As a mentor, it is important to self-reflect, step back, and critically examine what assumptions, expectations and values you may be imposing on your mentee (consciously or unconsciously), and that your goals for the mentee and relationship may not always be “right” just because you hold a “mentor” role. Furthermore, across many different types of volunteering-based roles, such as in mentoring, giving back not only ‘feels good’ for (and significantly benefits) the person doing it, but the experience of volunteering/mentoring is also frequently sought out as an expected personal and/or professional growth experience. Mentors have a lot to gain, sometimes if not more, from mentoring roles.

The second point is that mentees do not exist in a vacuum. Their experiences are directly impacted by their mentor given the relational interaction, and utilizing Bronfenbrenner’s model, it is important to understand this relational impact goes both ways. Looking at mentee outcomes in isolation misses a crucial component of the mentoring “system,” literally the other half! Understanding the role the organizational context plays gives an even more nuanced understanding of the mentoring relationship and mentor/mentee outcomes.

Read a summary of Dr. Ellison’s recent paper on mentor outcomes here.