When she’s not working with students studying the development of gender identity or engaging a classroom, Lisa Dinella also serves as Monmouth University’s ambassador to the animal kingdom.
Dr. Dinella is an associate professor of psychology and the principal investigator at Monmouth University’s Gender Development Lab, and the instructor of the popular Six Flags field experience course.
She began researching gender studies as an undergraduate at The College of New Jersey, carried that interest through her graduate work at Arizona State University, and continues this work in collaboration with students and faculty at Monmouth University.
“I love my career. I love teaching students how to use science to answer their most compelling questions, and helping make the world of research more accessible,” Dr. Dinella says. “My research contributes to the field’s understanding of gender, gender stereotypes, and how to reduce gender inequities. I love that I am able to integrate my work as a gender researcher and use my passion for teaching to help students maximize their personal strengths.”
Dr. Dinella’s research investigates how gender’s impact goes beyond genetic sex-determination, and looks at the lifespan from learned child behaviors all the way to college-age students as they study and prepare for their careers.
“I research gender identity, media, academic achievement, and career development. I am particularly interested in how children’s exposure to toys impacts their learning, and children’s thoughts about how girls and boys should act. We mainly look at how children’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or girl influences their play, their choices in playmates, and their likes and dislikes. We also investigate sources that influence children’s understanding of what it means to be a boy or girl. These include mass marketing of toys, media such as superhero and Disney princess movies, and parent and peers’ thoughts about gender.
“For example, my undergraduate research team investigates how changing the color of toys from pink to blue, or from blue to pink, can alter whether children like to play with them. My team also studies the gender messages prevalent in the princess and superhero genres, whether children notice these messages, and how they relate to young adults’ career aspirations.
“Princess and superhero movies are incredibly popular right now, and messages about how boys and girls ‘should’ act are prominent in these genres. My research confirms that children are aware of the gender messages prevalent in these genres, and that they relate to how masculine and feminine children feel about themselves. A follow-up study we are currently conducting found that when we show children clips of princesses acting strong and as leaders, they notice this. They view themselves more similarly to the role model characters in the movie clips. It is important to know how exposure to princesses and superheroes may be influencing children.”
Collaborations that I've been involved with
Students aren’t merely subjects of Dr. Dinella’s research, rather they are participants gaining hands-on experience in the Gender Development Laboratory.
“I actively train and mentor undergraduate students to conduct empirical investigations. My undergraduate research team members participate in the design, data collection, data analysis, synthesis, and the presenting and publishing of research. I work with undergraduate students as fellow collaborators, and routinely travel with them to present our research at national conferences.
“Undergraduate students work as my collaborators. This means they take an active role in every step—they help brainstorm research ideas, aid in collecting study materials (which can mean anything from shopping for toys with me to designing sophisticated online surveys), travel to local daycares and elementary schools to interview children and teachers, and spend hours in the laboratory with me learning how to statistically analyze our data.
“Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my role as principle investigator is when students are ready to share the findings of our research with the field. Students travel with me to national conferences (Denver, San Francisco, even Honolulu) to present the research findings to other professionals in the field. I also publish with students in respected journals. I love watching students grow as they move through the stages of research.
Why I'm proud of Monmouth
“Monmouth University provides opportunities for students to challenge themselves. I work with students in internship placements, as research assistants, and within my Six Flags field experience course. The course is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Monmouth University and Six Flags Great Adventure have an exclusive affiliation — no other university has an undergraduate program like this.
“Students travel to Six Flags Wild Safari once a week to learn how animal trainers use psychological principles (the same ones students learn about in other psychology courses) to train exotic animals such as sea lions, giraffes, elephants, even rhinoceros. They receive a lecture from the animal trainers, watch demonstrations of training sessions, and then have supervised opportunities to train the animals themselves. It is thrilling!
"Back on campus, students meet to discuss the science behind the psychological principle of the week and how they will apply this principle to their own career. For example, understanding how positive rewards can help change a lion’s behavior can be directly adapted to a therapy setting—with children or adults.
"Students hone their public speaking skills by giving educational animal presentations on the stage at Six Flags—skills employers tell us they want new hires to have mastered.
“In these settings, students take on tasks outside of their mastery skill set. Students receive training, guidance, and support as they work outside of their comfort zone. They then have the chance to personally reflect on their learning-- not only about their strengths but also about areas that need development. We work together to on skills that will prepare them for future endeavors.
“Each year students have been hired as animal trainers and safari tour guides straight out of the course. I love watching students embrace new opportunities, and this class provides one incredible opportunity after another.”