Geier recipient of early career professorship award

Charles Geier, assistant professor of human development and family studies at Penn State, was recently named as the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Frances Keesler Graham Early Career Professorship.

Geier was awarded the Graham Professorship by the Social Science Research Institute (SSRI) for his work on neurodevelopment in adolescence and its links to habit-forming behaviors such as smoking.

“My previous work largely focused on goal-directed responses, in which an action is performed to achieve a certain outcome or attain a reward,” said Geier. “The early career professorship will allow me to expand upon this work and explore habitual responses, which are the result of repeated behavior and often triggered by a cue to behave rather than the expected outcomes of a behavior.”

The professorship will fund a series of three studies focusing on identifying developmental changes in the brain that occur during adolescence and that contribute to the adoption of habits such as smoking. Geier is especially interested in whether and why these behaviors may be more rewarding to adolescents than adults.

“It is a tremendous opportunity to push the field of developmental neuroscience in an innovative direction, as we know almost nothing about adolescents’ habitual responses, or on smoking and how it becomes a habitual response,” Geier said.

Geier will first assess the behaviors of non-smoking adolescents 13 to 17 years of age and compare them to those of young adults, ages 24 to 35, to determine how habit development may differ across age. He will focus on the habit forming period of behaviors, including how long it takes habits to form. “I will also look at older adolescents and adults who smoke and compare their data to non-smokers’ data,” he explained.

Geier will examine the neurodevelopmental basis of habits through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the Social, Life and Engineering Sciences Imaging Center, part of SSRI. “The goal is to look at the different brain circuits that control goal-directed and habitual responses to advance understanding of how the brain drives our behavior,” Geier explained. “If we know more about how habits are formed, we can develop targeted interventions to stop a behavior before it reaches the habit level.”

Noting that Dr. Frances Keesler Graham was a pioneer in what is now the study of neurodevelopment, Geier added, “I want to thank the Graham family for their generous gift to the University and for the opportunity to pursue this novel line of work.”

Geir received his doctorate in cognitive psychology/neuroscience and completed postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh. He has been a Penn State faculty member since 2011 and is a co-funded faculty member in SSRI and an affiliate of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences and the Prevention Research Center at Penn State.

The Dr. Frances Keesler Graham Early Career Professorship provides supplemental funding to faculty members working in developmental neuroscience. The award rotates every three years to a new recipient in the first 10 years of her or his academic career, providing seed money for innovative research projects.

The professorship was created by Graham’s daughter, Mary Graham, as a way to honor her late mother, who began her career in social and behavioral sciences as a Penn State undergraduate

More information on the professorship award, including the application process, can be found at SSRI’s professorship website.