Sleep researcher named Professor of the Year

By Tammy Keith Published December 6, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Psychology professor Jennifer Peszka sits on the bed in the sleep lab at Hendrix College, where she conducts research. Nick the Neuron, the “mascot” of the sleep lab, lies on the bed. Peszka started the sleep lab in 2001 when the D.W. Reynolds Center for Life Sciences opened. She was named 2015 Arkansas Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. She also was on the faculty committee that created the nationally recognized Hendrix Odyssey Program.

CONWAY — Jennifer Peszka believes good things come to those who sleep — or to those who study sleeping, like she does.

The Hendrix College psychology professor was named the 2015 Arkansas Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

“I think there are so many fantastic teachers at Hendrix — and in Arkansas — so I think even getting your name on the list, even being nominated, is super amazing,” she said.

The Harrison native began teaching at Hendrix in Conway in 1999 and started a sleep lab on campus about two years later, she said.

Peszka received her award Nov. 19 during an awards luncheon in Washington, D.C.

A member of the Hendrix administration nominated Peszka for the award; then she had to submit letters of recommendation from her peers, and some of her former students wrote letters, which she has not seen, and she had to write an essay about teaching. The college’s former provost wrote in support of her, too.

“Then, I think it’s luck after that,” she said. After she won, the news went out on the Hendrix website and on Facebook, and she started getting congratulatory messages.

“What was nice was to have students I haven’t talked to in a long time write stuff like, ‘She deserves it.’ Teaching is hard. They don’t always love you, so it’s nice to have somebody tell you you’re doing a good job,” Peszka said.

Students raved about her in award-recommendation letters.

One wrote: “Dr. Peszka stands out for her ability to engage students in difficult and complex content. Her classes were carefully planned and always seemed to be a compelling mix of rich content delivery, critical discussion and hands-on activities that helped clarify important concepts.”

Another student wrote, in part: “I cannot comprehend how anyone who takes her Introduction to Psychology course manages to become anything but a psychology major.”

Peszka’s parents are both proud of her recent honor, but her father first questioned the legitimacy of the award, she said with a laugh. “He said, ‘Send me something when it shows up in the newspaper.’”

Here you go, Ben Peszka.

Jennifer Peszka’s decision to go into psychology dates her, she said.

“I think when I was in high school, there was like this box of jobs in the back of the classroom,” she said. A quiz in career-education class showed the jobs in which she’d excel: “One was bartending, psychology was on there, and I can’t remember what else,” the 43-year-old said.

She went to Washington and Lee University in Virginia and studied psychology. She knew she didn’t want to be a clinical psychologist and see patients.

One early morning while she was studying in the psychology building — about 2 or 3 a.m.— she saw a poster from the National Sleep Foundation that a professor had hung on a bulletin board.

“It had all these unanswered questions about sleep,” she said. Some remain a mystery today, she said, such as why people die in their sleep.

Peszka had an aha moment.

“I was standing there in this really sleepy state, and that’s when it came to me that that’s what I wanted to be doing,” she said. Peszka called the National Sleep Foundation, which doesn’t do sleep research, she found out. It sent her a thin booklet, probably 20 pages worth, of all the sleep labs in the country.

“Now this is it,” she said, hefting a thick book from the shelf, which hit the desk with a thud. “Isn’t that crazy?”

In 1993, between her junior and senior years of college, she found a job at a sleep laboratory in White Plains, New York.

“We looked at how people deal with shift work,” she said. “We had different age groups of folks come live in the lab for a week. They worked at a fake, boring, boring computer job.”

Peszka went to the University of Southern Mississippi for her doctorate, which she said was a lucky break. Her mentor at Southern Miss, John Harsh, was not taking any more students. Her supervisor at the sleep lab in New York persuaded him to just meet Peszka, and he accepted her as a graduate student.

Harsh, who is now an adjunct professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said he had more than enough graduate students, but after he met Jennifer, it was an “easy decision” to have her join the lab.

“All Jennifer ever needs to succeed at the highest level at whatever she sets out to do is opportunity,” Harsh said. “She puts everything she has into achieving her goals and is never satisfied until her goals are well-met.” He described her as “exceptionally responsible and exceptionally capable” when working with graduate and, especially, undergraduate members of the team.

“She has the knack of bringing out the best in others. This is why I was delighted, but not surprised, by Jennifer’s award. I knew that she would excel in an academic environment like that at Hendrix, where undergraduate education is the highest priority. Being superior in the classroom and inspiring students to get involved in research comes naturally for her,” Harsh said.

Before her dissertation was finished, Peszka said, Harsh encouraged her to go ahead and apply to institutions where she wanted to teach. She applied to several, and she got a good offer from a school. Harsh suggested that she look at her list and see if there was somewhere she’d really rather be and, if so, to call that school and ask if she was still in the running.

Peszka told him she didn’t have to look at the list; she wanted to work at Hendrix.

“He said, ‘Go call them.’ I went back to my office, and as I was unlocking the door, the phone was ringing, and it was Tim Maxwell offering me a job.” Maxwell, a psychology professor, was chairman of Hendrix’s psychology department at the time.

Again, she called it luck.

“You work hard and give yourself the opportunity to be lucky,” she said.

She said Maxwell has been her mentor at Hendrix.

“He did a great deal of patient, calm counseling of me through those early years,” she said. “I definitely would not be the teacher I am now without him.”

Peszka teaches Behavioral Neuroscience, Sensation and Perception, Statistics, Intro to Psychology and Learning.

A small percentage of her work is sleep research, but it’s still her passion.

The Hendrix sleep lab has one bed, and students are paid $50 to participate in some of the studies.

One of the studies, which was published in Time magazine, tested the same students after their freshman, sophomore and senior years, and then two years after college. They had to fill out questionnaires about their sleep habits, which were compared to academic performance (permission was asked to get their grades, and most agreed). The question was, “Are your sleep habits directly related to your performance in college?”

What Peszka found was that students who were night owls, or made a big shift to being a night owl in college, their GPAs were not as good as larks, or people who went to bed earlier and woke up earlier. Night owls might miss more 8 a.m. classes, she said, or do more poorly when they become sleep-deprived.

Peszka can spout sleep statistics and studies for days. For example, being sleep-deprived affects the frontal lobe much like alcohol does. One night of sleep deprivation has the same reduction in driving performance as being legally drunk, she said. Most people wouldn’t drive drunk, but driving while sleepy? It happens all the time, she said.

Not getting enough sleep also has been related to obesity and symptoms similar to diabetes, makes it harder to handle stress, and “it’s very difficult on your cardiovascular system,” she said.

The latest research Peszka is conducting is looking at whether using technology, such as cellphones, two hours before bedtime has an impact on sleep and, if so, what that impact is.

She barely texts, much less sleeps with a phone by her bed. Peszka knows all the tips for good sleep hygiene — her husband, David Mastin, is a professor of psychology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and developed a sleep-hygiene index.

So, does she follow her own advice for good sleep?

“I always need more time,” she said, laughing while evading the question. “You should get plenty of sleep. It’s really not good for your health or well-being not to get enough sleep.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.