As a nursing-home volunteer after high school, Elizabeth Muñoz listened patiently to residents’ childhood memories, family histories, health complaints and tales of bereavement. The experience piqued her interest in aging and stress, which she now studies in UC Irvine’s Emotion Research Lab.
“I’m fascinated by how older adults cope with stressors in their lives, such as chronic illnesses and the loss of loved ones,” says Muñoz, a psychology & social behavior senior. “I want to learn more about how to help the elderly live independent, healthy lives.”
Muñoz recently received the 2009 dean’s award for community engagement from the School of Social Ecology. The award recognizes students who demonstrate scholarly achievement and participate in community service.
Susan Turk Charles, psychology & social behavior associate professor, heads the Emotion Research Lab and supervises Muñoz’s work. “Elizabeth has a genuine commitment to research on the interplay between emotions and health in older adults. She stands out among undergraduates because of her tenacity and curiosity.”
Muñoz moved to Southern California from her native Jalisco, Mexico, when she was in middle school. She struggled to fit in with her American-born peers, learning English by watching television and studying an English-Spanish dictionary.
Her experiences as an immigrant with limited language skills inspired Muñoz to get involved with UCI’s Latino Community Service group. She recently organized an event that provided free health screenings to low-income Santa Ana residents.
Muñoz says UCI has given her the confidence and solid research background she needs to pursue a master’s and doctorate in human development at Pennsylvania State University this fall. In the meantime, she is finishing her study on how chronic stress affects the elderly, volunteering at a local nursing home and delivering meals to homebound seniors.
“Aging fascinates me. I really want to give back to this population,” Muñoz says. “Research on the elderly has so many implications for policy and clinical areas. I want to help shape decisions involving their healthcare and living situations.”