Beinecke Scholar studies psychology to help children become more resilient

By April Hunt | Emory Report | May 1, 2019

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Emory junior Darien “Penny” McElwee has been named one of just 18 Beinecke Scholars nationwide. After conducting extensive undergraduate research, she plans to pursue a PhD in psychology, exploring how children develop resiliency.

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As a child, Darien “Penny” McElwee thought she wanted to be a veterinarian, then a marine biologist.

Support from her parents and encouragement from Emory College of Arts and Sciences to explore her interests made McElwee realize, though, that she was more interested in the science and behavior of humans rather than animals.

Now a junior psychology major with a quantitative sciences minor, she has researched everything from minority health disparities to the impact of maternal depression in children. For her thoughtful and compassionate research and her campus leadership, McElwee has been named one of just 18 Beinecke Scholars nationwide this year.

The prestigious award comes with $34,000 to help defray the cost of graduate school: $4,000 prior to entering and the rest while attending the graduate school of her choice to pursue a PhD in psychology, with a goal to study how children develop resiliency.

“Looking back, I had so many barriers to get here,” McElwee says. “If I can understand how we maintain motivation in a child the way it was instilled in me, if we can discover the interventions that can work, I could help kids globally attain their dreams.”

The Beinecke award is designed to encourage exceptional students to “be courageous” in their pursuit of graduate study in the arts, humanities and social sciences.

McElwee demonstrated that courage as early as second grade, when she began traveling two hours – each way, every day – from her home to one of Texas’ top public schools. The travel time was the same through high school, when she added volleyball and other activities to her day.

At Emory, she works as a resident advisor and volunteers with Emory Reads, tutoring in underserved metro Atlanta schools and coordinating with school principals on student outcomes. She also volunteers with the non-profit Hands On Atlanta, coordinating a Saturday tutoring program.

After her first year at Emory, McElwee was one of 20 first-year students named a Dean’s Achievement Scholar, and spent that summer assisting with a longitudinal study on first responders’ empathy and job effectiveness.

“The questions of resilience, adversity and achievement that power Penny’s research also direct her engagement on our campus and in the Atlanta community,” says Megan Friddle, director of the National Scholarships and Fellowships Program at Emory College. “Penny clearly has the maturity, discipline and academic record to step directly into a top graduate program in psychology.”

A time to explore   

McElwee sees her path as a winding road. Her parents, professionals who met at Howard University, encouraged her to prioritize education but did not push any specific career.

An AP psychology class had captured her attention in high school. So had an opportunity to study language and culture during a visit to China the summer before she arrived at Emory. McElwee entered college unsure of what to study, choosing to dive into Emory’s expansive liberal arts offerings.

The coursework allowed her to connect the dots of her interests to a single theme: understanding why people behave the way they do.

“Being able to explore my identity at Emory and all of my academic and intellectual interests gave me the opportunities to grow,” McElwee says. “It started connecting how I could use research to better help people in the real world.”

McElwee spent her sophomore year working as a research assistant on two separate depression-focused studies. At the Emory Brain Health Center’s Fuqua Center for Late-Life Depression, McElwee used some of her data skills in maintaining a patient database. She also worked with patients by going through their diagnostic assessments with them.

She wanted more opportunities to interact with people in research that aligned with her interests in racial disparities and the link between individuals and their environment. She found that last summer, conducting independent research as part of National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program.

Examining data from Canada, she ran a social network analysis to investigate how Inuits’ self-perceptions compared to their willingness to seek help with problems as varied as domestic violence and finding jobs.

The correlations she found, which are under review for publication, won her an Outstanding Researcher Award in social sciences for the summer program, and a travel award to present at the Emerging Researchers National Conference.

Sherryl Goodman, Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of psychology, hired McElwee last fall as a volunteer research assistant in her popular Children's and Mothers' Emotions lab. Goodman notes that she found out about McElwee’s honors by reading her resume, since she did not mention them in her interview.

“She has such a calm and humble presence, you’d never know she’s such an accomplished person,” says Goodman. “She just quietly puts herself out there and takes everything in stride, even as she has such high expectations for herself.”

McElwee has distinguished herself in Goodman’s lab. First, she learned to code infant gaze direction, contributing to a study of a possible connection between babies’ emotional regulation and mothers’ depression. Second, she is helping her graduate student mentor, Meeka Maier, collect data on infant-mother interactions to learn what maternal reactions best comfort distressed babies. 

Recently, McElwee also was selected as an Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) Scholar, which provides her with research support that includes full-time research in Emory’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program. She will immerse herself in projects in Goodman’s lab and begin to develop her senior honors thesis research.

First, though, McElwee wants to pursue her questions about how systematic, political discrimination adversely affects child development. She will do so before starting her SURE project, when she travels to South Africa to study the effects of apartheid on child development as a Global Research Fellow with Emory’s Halle Institute for Global Research and the Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry.

McElwee will complete a capstone paper on her South Africa research next year, when she also serves as senior residence advisor at Harris Hall and continues her volunteer work.

“I am always going to be interested in knowing why we are the way we are,” McElwee says. “Children are the answer because everything begins with them. Just think of all the things children could attain if we knew more about the one thing or things that most shape them into who they become.”