Doctoral student awarded Dean’s Fellowship for mindfulness research

Reagan Miller portrait photo
Reagan Miller

Reagan Miller, a doctoral student in the Colorado State University Department of Human Development and Family Studies, has received the Dean’s Fellowship from CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences to support her research with teenagers and health. This fellowship is a competitive opportunity to help fund doctoral students as they pursue their research in their discipline and includes $20,000 of support. Miller’s research is focused on how mindfulness and emotion regulation influence the mental and metabolic health of teenagers.

Miller is one of the two students who stood out and received the designation out of 16 proposals from talented Ph.D. students throughout the college. The second student is Aly Cavalier from the Department of Health and Exercise Science. Miller’s mentors are Human Development and Family Studies faculty Rachel Lucas-Thompson and Lauren Shomaker as well as a cross collaboration with Mark Prince from the Department of Psychology.

About Reagan Miller

Read the interview below to learn more about Miller and her research.

Tell us about your background and what compelled you to apply to become a CHHS Dean’s Fellow.

I am from Arlington, Virginia and the oldest of three girls. I attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech) where I studied psychology and statistics. Before starting my doctoral studies at CSU, I worked as a research assistant/coordinator in the Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital Colorado for two years and received my yoga teacher training certification in Rishikesh, India. I am currently in the third year of the applied developmental science program and have thoroughly enjoyed working with my fellow students and mentors to understand how humans develop. Studying mindfulness with adolescents is also something that I have been passionate about since I was a teenager and I am extremely honored to be studying this today.

My decision to apply for the CHHS Dean’s Fellowship was multi-faceted. From a systemic theoretical perspective, I believe that state and land grant universities understand the importance of serving and connecting with the community; therefore, the CHHS Dean’s Fellowship offered the perfect opportunity to continue to grow as a researcher while also serving the community. Additionally, the CHHS Dean’s Fellowship was announced at a time when I was ready to take on my own research after learning from my mentors, Associate Professor Rachel Lucas-Thompson, Associate Professor Lauren Shomaker, and Assistant Professor Mark Prince in Psychology. The fellowship announcement also dovetailed with the research study that we were running in Campus Connections. Overall, this fellowship offered an excellent opportunity to grow as a researcher and learn how we can best help at-risk teenagers to experience less depression and ultimately better metabolic health.

What are you researching?

I am researching how daily changes in mindfulness and emotion regulation may impact teens’ mental and metabolic health. Currently, there are several questions about the therapeutic mechanisms that underlie the effectiveness of mindfulness interventions, especially for teenagers and I am trying to answer these questions.

Can you explain the importance of a mindfulness-based Intervention for adolescent depression and metabolic health?

Adolescence is a developmental time period of increased risk for developing psychiatric conditions like depression. Rates of adolescent depression have increased drastically over the past decade and it is particularly concerning because it is not only a primary risk factor for suicide, but it also contributes to adverse metabolic health, like worsening of insulin resistance, which is a key precursor to type 2 diabetes. Adolescents exposed to chronic stressors are at an increased risk for developing depression and subsequent adverse metabolic outcomes due to the chronic activation of the of emotional, psychological, and physiological stress systems. Which can impact their ability to regulate their emotions. Mindfulness-based interventions offer adolescents tools that help them to cope with stressors and regulate their own emotions. I also find that MBIs offer teens a way for them to learn skills on their own, which can be utilized in almost any situation. By helping teens to feel non-judgmentally aware (i.e. mindful), they may experience greater emotion regulation which could contribute to reductions in depression and adverse metabolic health problems.

What inspired you to focus on this research? What do you aim to achieve in your research and what will the ultimate impact be for improving peoples’ lives?

I have been interested in mindfulness since I was a teenager. I began to practice yoga when I was 12 years old and experienced the beneficial impacts of being more mindful especially in how I regulated my own emotions and interacted with others, which motivated me to further explore this. I decided to explore the therapeutic mechanisms of mindfulness because of the research that I have been conducting with my mentors. Recently, we began to recognize that mindfulness may look different for teenagers than it does for adults and that the therapeutic mechanisms behind why mindfulness-based interventions work is not fully understood. With this research, I hope to not only clarify why mindfulness-based interventions work, but I also hope to help teens feel less stressed. Furthermore, as adolescents become more mindful and regulated, they will hopefully experience reductions in depression and metabolic health problems, which will improve their overall quality of life.

What aspects of your college education helped you prepare to do your research?

Wow, I don’t even know where to begin. I was a part of the Social Development Lab at Virginia Tech, which was directed by Dr. Julie Dunsmore. She introduced me to the concept of emotion regulation and how it impacts development and oppositional defiant disorder in children. Under her guidance, I conducted my first research study and fell in love with understanding how children and humans develop. In the SDL, I was also given the opportunity to work closely with doctoral students like Dr. Jordan Booker and Dr.  Shane McCarty, which gave me a taste for what graduate research would look like. As an undergraduate, I also was encouraged to minor in statistics, which scared me, but was one of the greatest challenges of my life. These experiences helped me to gain a better understanding of how to conduct a literature review, consent families, run research analyses, and present these findings in a scientific manner. I am extremely grateful for my college education, mentors, and experiences.

How have your mentors help guide you throughout your educational career?

My mentors, Rachel Lucas-Thompson, Lauren Shomaker, and Mark Prince, have been integral in guiding me throughout my educational career. They have not only provided me with impeccable feedback, but they have also taken the time to help me explore what my interests are and how I can best achieve my goals. They have been selfless and incredible role models and I do not believe I would have gotten this far without their guidance.

The Department of Human Development and Family Studies is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.