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ASU professor wins Rising Star Award from Association for Psychological Science

Thao Ha, APS Rising Star

Thao Ha, assistant professor of psychology in the ASU Department of Psychology, has been recognized by both the Association for Psychological Science and the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development as a rising scientist in the field of behavioral development. Photo by Robert Ewing

August 11, 2020

Thao Ha, assistant professor of psychology in Arizona State University's Department of Psychology, has been recognized by both the Association for Psychological Science and the International Society for the Study of Behavioral Development as a rising scientist in the field of behavioral development.

Ha is the principal investigator of the Healthy Experiences Across Relationships and Transitions Lab (@Heart Lab), where she investigates relationship dynamics, transitions, and how relationship experiences impact the lives of adolescents and young adults. Ha’s research focus is specifically on adolescent development and relationships, and the precursors to unhealthy and coercive adult romantic relationships.

“We investigate all phases of romantic relationships, from partner selection and breakups to the development of new romantic relationships among heterosexual and sexual minority youth. Furthermore, we investigate these early romantic relationships in the context of relationships with parents and friends,” Ha said.

The lab conducts research in a multidisciplinary fashion combining longitudinal dyadic assessments with direct observation methods, experimental methodologies, ecological momentary assessments, salivary biomarkers, heart rate variability and high-density array EEG neurocognitive assessments.

The goal of this research is to better understand why some adolescents are highly vulnerable to their relationship experiences. Ha is interested in the impact of culture, ethnicity, and SES on relationship development and adjustment outcomes. Understanding risk and resilience among youth within their romantic relationships will inform prevention and intervention strategies to promote healthy relationships and transitions.

Ha’s research comes from a place close to her heart. She is also a first-generation college student and was uncertain about how to go through her college experience. Her parents were refugees from Vietnam and Ha grew up in a tough neighborhood in the south of the Netherlands. She attended Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands for her bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees and her PhD in 2013.

“I always knew that I wanted to be a developmental psychologist,” Ha said. “Growing up I noticed how people in my school and neighborhood had such variability in how they would develop and change over time in school and life. I also was extremely driven because I knew how much my parents had given up to give me the opportunity at a different and better life.”

Social media research

Ha’s newest research focuses on understanding how adolescents and young adults use social media in their romantic relationships and friendships.

The project began in April 2020 when stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of COVID-19 just started, which significantly disrupted young people’s social relationships and in particular romantic relationships.

“We wanted to investigate how ASU students and their romantic partners used social media and digitally mediated interactions to stay connected and manage stress and conflict in relationships,” Ha said.

Couples participated in a daily diary study, during which they completed mini questionnaires that were delivered by text message for 21 days. A positive thing Ha has noticed is that students are able to navigate social relationships in healthy ways in spite of social distancing.

“There is so much that we don’t understand about how social media alters young relationships,” Ha said. “In light of COVID-19, digital interactions are actually quite healthy and are contributing to young people’s resilience right now. Students are able to maintain relationships and communication in so many ways that were not possible prior to the present time. At the same time, we are learning a lot about how events on various social media platforms can cause conflict and tension within romantic relationships, and how young people are subsequently using various platforms to engage in and resolve conflicts.”

Digitally mediated interactions challenge our traditional conceptualizations of in-person socializing.

“I am starting to realize and understand that there are so many more ways to experience a conflict online than in real life. Interactions on multiple platforms create various continuous streams of connections, either in real-time or asynchronously, that can be privately or publicly switched on and off, with or without the romantic partner’s awareness. We have lots to learn and my undergraduate students have been key in helping me to understand these online interactions in couples,” Ha said.

Award-winning researcher

The ISSBD Young Scientist Award recognizes “an early career scientist who has made a distinguished theoretical contribution to the study of behavioral development, has conducted programmatic research of distinction, or has made a distinguished contribution to the dissemination of developmental science.”

Ha has certainly done that and was also recognized with the American Psychological Society’s Rising Star designation, which is presented to outstanding researchers in the earliest stages of their careers who are advancing the field forward.  

“It is so humbling and validating to be recognized and be nominated by some of the best research psychological scientists in the world,” Ha said.

Ha joins past departmental recipients Gene Brewer, Frank Infurna, Madeline Meier, Michael Varnum and Dan McNeish in receiving the APS Rising Star designation.  

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