Graduating psychology student examines developmental pathways to healthy love

Olivia Maras smiles at the camera.

Oliva Maras, courtesy photo


Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2023 graduates.

Olivia Maras studies romantic relationships; she aims to understand how to promote healthy relationships through adolescence to adulthood. This December, she’ll earn a master’s degree in passing as she continues her pursuit of a PhD in psychology with a specialization in developmental psychology at Arizona State University.

Originally from the small town of Blair, Nebraska, Maras’ interest in relationship dynamics began during her undergraduate days at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she served in a psychology lab that explored the marital dyad through structured interviews with family members.

“Conducting these interviews really sparked my interest in studying romantic relationships, as I saw firsthand how integral they were to so many other aspects of their well-being and parenting. I also saw how impactful and important quality research is to answering important questions,” Maras said. “I knew I wanted to continue my research journey, and a PhD in psychology was the next natural step!”

In addition to her doctoral research in Associate Professor Thao Ha’s Healthy Experiences Across Relationships and Transitions (@Heart) Lab, Maras is an advocate for inclusivity, actively contributing to ASU’s Department of Psychology through teaching, mentoring and spearheading the graduate student-led initiative Amplified Voices.

We caught up with Maras to learn more about her research, her decision to attend ASU and her plans for the future. 

Question: Why did you choose ASU?

Answer: I chose ASU for many reasons, but my primary reason was the wonderful, supportive community in the Department of Psychology. I could tell, even from my interviews, that the graduate students and faculty were there to support and uplift each other. This has held true, three years in! 

I also chose ASU for the robust research program and research opportunities. Learning from the amazing and accomplished faculty at ASU has deepened my learning experiences and pushed my research to new heights.

Q: Can you share more about your master’s thesis?

A: My thesis utilized a longitudinal research sample to investigate whether experiencing harmful, negative parenting dynamics in adolescence is associated with increased risk for involvement in intimate partner violence in adulthood. I also wanted to understand whether having a healthy, positive and prosocial friendship in adolescence could lower the risk of being involved in intimate partner violence in adulthood, particularly for those who experienced harmful parenting in adolescence. 

I found that, indeed, having positive, prosocial peer friendships in adolescence were important in lowering the risk of future intimate partner violence. I hope that this research inspires intervention and prevention programs to invest in the promotion of healthy, positive peer friendships in adolescence as it may protect against future harmful romantic relationship behaviors.

Q: Could you share an instance or story that illustrates the impact of a specific professor or mentor during your time at ASU?

A: My advisor, Dr. Thao Ha, has been instrumental in my success as a graduate student. She is endlessly encouraging and believes in me and my abilities to make an impact as a researcher. 

One example that comes to mind is when I first started graduate school. In my first month in the program, Thao encouraged me to submit an abstract to the Society for Research on Adolescence (SRA) conference, even though I had just started and had no idea what I wanted to study. She pushed me to step out of my comfort zone and trust myself as a new researcher. I was accepted to the conference and had an amazing time presenting my research at SRA in New Orleans!

Q: Are there any experiential learning opportunities that have significantly influenced your academic and personal growth during your time at ASU?

A: My involvement in Amplified Voices: A Conversation and Action Series has been incredibly rewarding. Amplified Voices is a graduate student-led project in the Department of Psychology, aiming to provide a platform that honors and celebrates racial and ethnic minority scholars and underrepresented voices. The project also challenges current ideas and practices within psychology research. 

So far, we have held seven successful events, bringing in speakers to discuss a range of crucial topics. These include equity in the classroom, historical silences that shape current social stratification, experiences of being Black in academia’s “ivory tower,” racism in health care, approaches to Indigenous quantitative methods and behavioral genetic approaches to study race-related dynamics. 

I currently hold the role of project manager, leading a team of four graduate students to execute these events and ensure the success of the project. I love having the opportunity to inspire our community to engage with these critical ideas and calls to action.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: My advice is to be kind to yourself and give yourself more credit than you think you deserve. Just getting into graduate school is a huge accomplishment and means that you are exactly where you need to be. Remember that you deserve to be there. As I’m still in school as a PhD student, I am still trying to take my own advice! Also, finding your community is critical to your personal success as an academic and researcher. Building a strong community to support you and uplift you in difficult times is one of the most important tasks of graduate school.

Q: What was your favorite space on campus, whether studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite space on campus is the secret garden, in the southwest corner of Dixie Gammage Hall. I love the greenery, beautiful landscaping and quiet surroundings. Another runner-up is the Life Sciences A Wing, where you can find many live reptiles, including snakes and turtles, along the hallway! 

Q: How do you envision your future work contributing to the field of psychology?

A: After I get my PhD, I am unsure of where I will land. I know that I want to pursue a career in research and help improve people’s lives in some way. Stay tuned for what this looks like, whether it is a career in industry in user experience research, nonprofit work, government policymaking or academia!

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: As a psychology student, I must note that this is an impossible question to answer, as there are so many aspects of our lives that are interconnected. So solving one problem just means there are still many more to solve. However, I am passionate about preventing intimate partner violence and dating abuse, so I would tackle this issue. To do so, however, we need to target parenting, peer dynamics, socio-economic status, sex and relationship education in schools, and so much more! 

Additionally, I would bring more awareness towards the issue of digital dating violence, which is a new frontier in dating abuse research. With technological advancements and social media, harmful relationship behaviors aren’t just happening in person anymore. Understanding relationship dynamics and how they intersect with technology is a crucial next step in research. Overall, I would spend this money on promoting healthy, positive and constructive relationship skills and dynamics, starting as early as childhood and continuing into adulthood.

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