Veronica Hanna-Walker, Graduate Student Spotlight, July 2024

Veronica Hanna-WalkerVeronica Hanna-Walker will complete her Ph.D. in Summer 2024. She enrolled in the HDFS program in 2020 to work with Dr. Eva Lefkowitz on research about sexual identity development and the health and health-related outcomes of sexual and gender diverse (SGD) youth and young adults. During graduate school, Veronica worked on several research projects, including a longitudinal project examining SGD college students’ health and well-being during academic breaks with Dr. Lefkowitz.

Veronica successfully defended her dissertation in May. In her dissertation, she used qualitative and quantitative methods to understand the role of religion in SGD youth’s and young adults’ lives. Findings included a better understanding of SGD youth’s experiences of religious parents’ reactions to their diverse sexual orientations and gender identities along with narratives from SGD young adults’ experiences in religions that are disaffirming of sexual and gender diversity.

Veronica recently accepted a position as a research associate at UConn’s School of Social Work. She intends to continue pursuing applied research. Outside of work, Veronica can be found hiking, reading, walking, or working out.

Alexandria Tomkunas, HDFS Graduate Student Spotlight, June 2024

Lexi TomkunasLexi Tomkunas will complete her PhD in Spring 2024. For her dissertation, she conducted a state-wide analysis of codes of conduct and exclusionary discipline outcomes in Florida as well as semi-structured interviews with educators to explore how mindsets underlie the discipline process. Lexi entered the program having taught kindergarten at a Title I elementary school in Miami, Florida, and has continued teaching elementary school throughout her time at UConn. Her passion for education equity and bridging the research to practice gap underscored her experience in the program.  

At UConn, Lexi has collaborated with her advisor, Dr. Maria LaRusso, on research related to children’s social, emotional, and behavioral well-being and educator well-being. Additionally, she worked with Dr. Beth Russell and Dr. Rachel Tambling on a research project focused on family relationships during the pandemic. Lexi has also collaborated on research projects with various faculty in the Neag School of Education. She completed both the Culture, Health, and Human Development and College Instruction graduate certificates at UConn, as well as a graduate certificate in Applied Behavior Analysis at the Florida Institute of Technology. Furthermore, she was a Southern Education Foundation “SELI” fellow in the summer of 2021 and engaged in research and policy work related to Georgia’s school discipline practices. One of Lexi’s favorite experiences as a doctoral student was having the opportunity to teach the course Diversity Issues in Human Development four times on two different campuses. 

Lexi has accepted a role as the lead of a special education program at a public Waldorf school in Florida. She looks forward to continuing to support students, educators, and families in this role.

Abagail Horton, Graduate Student Spotlight, May 2024

Abagail Horton, PHD 2024Abagail Horton joined the HDFS graduate program in 2019 and completed her Ph.D. in HDFS in Spring 2024. During graduate school she worked with Dr. Beth Russell. Her first line of research was to understand the processes through which emotion regulation, stress, and relationship quality influence mental health outcomes. For example, during the pandemic, she collaborated with Dr. Beth Russell, Dr. Rachel Tambling, and other graduate students to collect data from several hundred parents nation-wide during the first few weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic. This work was one of the first to examine families’ experiences during the pandemic and revealed that caregivers experienced heightened rates of depression, anxiety, and stress as a result of the pandemic. In 2023, Abagail collaborated with Dr. Crystal Park, Dr. Beth Russell, and a clinical psychology graduate student to collect descriptive data on college students’ engagement in stress management activities, perceptions of these activities, and mental health symptoms based on apparent gender-based perceived barriers to recruitment.

Her second line of research centered around answering the question, “What works for whom and when, where, and why?” when examining mindfulness-based or school-based interventions and applying science. During graduate school, she was a team member and project manager for the evaluation of Connecticut’s 21st Century afterschool program, a nationwide effort to reduce the race-based achievement gap in K-12 public schools. Through her work on this project, she gained many skills. For example, she worked with a large 10-year longitudinal dataset with more than 10,000 students and was granted leadership opportunities to mentor a team of junior doctoral students and undergraduate students.  She also worked with stakeholders to develop evaluation products that best fit their community needs as well as contributed to the pilot of new data collection on participating students’ social and emotional skills.

Abagail successfully defended her dissertation in March. Her mixed-methods dissertation brought a fresh lens to questions about mindfulness-based interventions. Specifically, she wrote a systematic review and proposed a mid-level theoretical model; conducted a qualitative study about early childhood educators’ stressors and perceptions of scaffolding children’s emotional development; and implemented and examined the acceptability, feasibility, and preliminary efficacy of an adapted group mindfulness-based intervention (PRISM) for early childhood educators.

In April, Abagail started a position as a Research and Evaluation Manager for the Institute for the Advancement of Community Health (IACH) at Furman University. She is looking forward to continuing working on applied research and evaluation of programs that support health and wellbeing. Outside of work, she can be found traveling, enjoying the sunshine, or spending time with her friends and family.