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Marvin Diaz

Meet Marvin Diaz, psychology

By Audrey Russo

Sometimes, all it takes is one class to set you on the path to success.

For Marvin Diaz, a new assistant professor at Harpur College, it was a class in the field of psychology that made him want to research the brain.

“In my final semester of undergrad, when I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I grew up, I took a course called Physiological Psychology where I learned that you could study the biology of the brain, or neuroscience,” Diaz said.

Diaz, 32, was originally a biology major at UNC-Wilmington, with a chemistry and psychology double minor. After graduation, Diaz continued to study neuroscience and received his doctorate from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was after a post-doctorate fellowship at the University of New Mexico that Diaz realized he wanted to further study the effects of alcohol on human development.

“I worked on alcohol research in adults and I specifically studied alcohol withdrawal-induced anxiety and while I was there, I came across a developmental difference and that sparked my interest in looking at alcohol, but in a context of development,” Diaz said. “I did my post-doc in a lab where they studied FASD [fetal alcohol spectrum disorders].”

After completing the fellowship, Diaz needed a new location to continue his research. Diaz was attracted to Harpur College’s Psychology Department because of the University’s center for alcohol research.

“Most universities that have alcohol research centers, they focus on specific components and the one here has this developmental curriculum and idea,” Diaz said.

Diaz’s research focuses on the emotional development of children with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, especially on the amygdala portion of the brain. The Developmental Exposure Alcohol Research Center, where Diaz conducts his research, is driven mostly by graduate students and psychology professors from Harpur College, but collaborates with schools such as SUNY Upstate Medical University and the University of Maryland.

Diaz uses his research in the Harpur classes he teaches: In the fall, he led a 400-level seminar for psychology and neuroscience majors. New to teaching, Diaz said the quality of Harpur students surprised him.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Diaz said. “I’d never really been involved in the teaching aspect, but I’ve been very surprised with the class I’m teaching. They are very bright students and there’s a big diversity.”

Some of Diaz’s students are beginning to internalize the lessons they’ve learned in class and are noticing the causes and effects of FASDs outside of school.

“Two of them have told me that they are bartenders or have announced it in the class how they see [pregnant] women in the bars drinking and how it infuriates them now that they’re learning about all this,” Diaz said.

Diaz hopes his students will come away from the class with the desire to spread awareness about fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

“This is the number one preventable cause of mental retardation and so awareness is going to be the key to stopping it or to decrease the numbers,” Diaz said. “I hope the students either apply it to themselves if they get ever pregnant, but definitely spreading the word and telling people about it so that more and more people can understand the risk that they’re taking.”

Diaz’s work is grant-based, which means he has to apply for government grants to fund his research. Diaz said he is excited to continue his research at Binghamton University. However, the adjustment period isn’t over yet: Diaz, his wife and three children have never lived in a cold climate.

“We are warned almost daily about the winters, so we’re curious to see how bad it will actually get,” Diaz said. “Especially since we lived in New Mexico the past three and a half years where there was very little precipitation.”

As he settles into Harpur College, Diaz said he hopes to build his career further in the Binghamton area.

“If I fit in here well, I’d love to finish my career here.”

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Last Updated: 3/1/17