Passion for Land, People, and Diversity Drives Doctoral Student’s Research

Fostering positive change through scholarship

Doctoral student in experimental psychology , Tiarå Freeman, was raised on an organic farm in Northern New Mexico. Her family grew everything, she said—squash, corn, peppers, tomatoes, okra, spinach, broccoli, and “swaths of cosmos”–which are related to sunflowers and come in lovely shades of fuchsia, pale purple, and bright orange.

Tiarå’s family foraged for wild spinach, water cress, mushrooms, and mountain herbs, all sold at the local farmers market. They also had a menagerie with dogs, cats, ducks, geese, peacocks, horses, and chickens. Tiarå said her parents were eclectic, and she also blends philosophies and interests in her research.

When Tiarå was 16, her beloved father lost his brief battle with kidney cancer. “The loss shook everything loose,” she said, and she wanted to make a fresh start. She finished high school in Houston, Texas, and expressed herself through slam poetry, painting, and photography. “Looking back,” Tiarå said, “some of us face unique obstacles that keep us from achieving our goals or simply existing in the ether of our lives. For me, it was learning to process grief and the pain of loss.”

Tiarå’s parents had instilled in her a deep appreciation for nature and stewardship of the land and people. She is passionate about environmental and social justice, and wants to be a researcher and educator “involved in science and scholarship that intentionally fosters positive changes for people and the world.”

In college, Tiarå was intrigued by how culture shapes our ideas about health and wellness. She studied sociology and anthropology with an interest in pre-health. But, as much as Tiarå enjoyed attending school, she needed a break. During the hiatus, she worked as a barista, dental assistant, bartender, and server. Some hiatus!

Doctoral student in nature
Doctoral student, Tiarå Freeman, in her favorite place, outdoors.

At Portland State University (PSU), Tiarå took psychology courses from professors Dr. Bill Griesar and Dr. Marcus Sharp, and her interests shifted. The courses connected the social and biological applications of psychology, sparking passion and revealing the missing puzzle piece. “I realized that studying psychology had always been my true interest,” she said. “I had been trying to tackle my questions in the wrong disciplines.”

Tiarå conducted research in both a Community Psychology Senior Capstone course and Social Psychology Lab at PSU. With community partners, she and colleague Tsionah Novick created the research group Student Partners Against Racist Advising (SPARA), which used a mixed-method study design to investigate the Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) transfer-student experience with PSU’s advising and career services. They launched a participatory-action research project designed to disrupt systemic racism on campus.

The pair attended the National Institute for the Study of Transfer Students (NISTS) Conference and shared their research, which showed how taking decisive actions could improve experiences for BIPOC transfer-students. “The most personally enriching moment,” Tiarå said, “was seeing research in action, knowing we were contributing to campus diversity.”

In the Social Psychology Lab under Dr. Cynthia Mohr, who researches health and wellness contexts in military couples, Tiarå was a teaching assistant and volunteer educator through the NW Noggin Neuroscience outreach program. “Teaching deepened my understanding of psychology and neuroscience,” she said. “I also gained valuable insights into working with diverse people through community outreach.”

Tiarå’s most instructional encounters came from working with Mohr in her lab, exploring interpersonal relationships and wellness behaviors (like alcohol use). “Her mentorship solidified my interest in health psychology,” she said, “and rounded out my research acumen by nurturing my hypothesis testing and statistics.” Tiarå studied whether students spent more time in nature to cope with sleep disruptions and other health factors during the first year of COVID. Collaborating with Mohr enabled Tiarå to prepare two papers and two conference presentations–one of which won the research award at the Western Psychological Association for the Psi Chi Honors Society 2022.

Next, Tiarå worked as a Resident Advisor at the Portland Veterans Affairs Center to Improve Veteran Involvement in Care (CIVIC). She assisted Dr. Lauren Denneson in studying suicide intervention and prevention in veteran populations by working on several projects that examined suicidal ideation and the reintegration of military personnel into civilian life. Tiarå worked with high-risk patients in the mental health ward and recruited them for a study using an experimental behavioral treatment design.

When deciding on graduate studies, Tiarå wanted to blend environmental science and psychology, and research how environmental features made an impact on mental health and wellness. She noted that WSU emphasized training innovative and highly skilled researchers, which led her to Dr. Kim Meidenbauer and the Social, Cognitive, Environmental, Neuroscience (SCENe) Lab. Meidenbauer’s multidisciplinary approach matched Tiarå’s research interests. The SCENe Lab studies how different environments have an impact on cognition and behavior. Meidenbauer’s scope of research also examines the environmental influences on cognition and emotional states, for instance, evaluating the heat-aggression hypothesis—which is exactly what it sounds like.

Tiarå’s background in psychology and neuroscience, and her self-identification as a “biracial adult learner” who returned to school after working in the service industry, gives her a unique perspective. “I am drawn to the diverse research interests of many WSU faculty,” she said. Tiarå also feels connected to the landscape and community of the Pacific Northwest.

“Environmental psychology is still an emerging field,” she said, “especially in the states, so it took me a long time to find someone whose research aligned with my interests, and I am absolutely thrilled to be here.” Tiarå enjoys working in the lab, integrating the logical and creative dimensions of knowledge. With her interest in literature and desire to build upon her scientific skills, she takes every opportunity to grow in her field.

When asked what advice she has for graduate students, Tiarå said, “If you have niche interests (that’s great), you just might need to be creative or flexible to find a way to see them grow, but they are worth pursuing!”