Fordham Student Researches Stress and Personality


Elizabeth Zanghi/The Ram

By Julia Rist

(Elizabeth Zanghi/The Ram) Daniella Toto, FCRH ’20, is conducting her third research project on the effects of stress under Molly Zimmerman, Ph.D.

Daniella Toto, FCRH ’20, is no stranger to research projects. Since completing her freshman year, she’s already received three research grants from Fordham.

Toto, a sophomore double majoring in psychology and biology, is looking at how personality is connected with perceived stressfulness, and if anxiety has anything to do with that relationship. Toto said that she expects an emotionally stable subject will report less stress, and vice-versa.

“The more emotionally stable you are, the less stress you get,” Toto said. “More emotionally stable people tend to report lower levels of stress, and generally will be less anxious than those who have lower emotional stability.”

Molly Zimmerman, Ph.D., a psychology professor, is serving as Toto’s advisor. Zimmerman, who runs the Clinical Neuropsychology Lab, said she was impressed by Toto’s early initiative to get involved with research.

Toto’s project grew out of a larger project run by Zimmerman. However, Zimmerman said Toto’s project is all her own.

“Her research project dovetails with a larger project I run that examines interrelationships of light exposure, sleep and cognitive function,” Zimmerman said. “Dani’s project is completely her own and has been driven by observations she has had working with study participants in my ‘parent’ project.”

Zimmerman also has five graduate students helping out at the laboratory. Most of them are pursuing degrees in clinical psychology. Some of the graduate volunteers from Zimmerman’s study help Toto take surveys that she created to better inform her own study. Right now, she’s up to 186 volunteers.

Toto said her tests are mostly based around cognitive function. These types of tests range from a simple pen and paper test to a watch that measures how much light exposure the subject is receiving when they’re sleeping.

“There’s a bunch of different tests we do to these students,” Toto said. “Mainly it’s all testing for cognitive functioning, so we give them a bunch of different surveys that test for that. These tests each have their own variable that they’re concentrating on.”

All of the previous research projects that Toto has conducted share the central theme of stress. In the summer of 2017, Toto looked at how stress affects the sleep of Fordham students. In this study, she predicted that students would have less stress because they were away from school, which she cited as a constant stressor for many people. She said she had to make sure this research had a seasonality component to it, due to the fact that she was completing it in the summer.

“I predicted that in the summer students are going to be less stressed because we don’t have any school work,” Toto said. “Since we’re less stressed, we will therefore get more sleep because stress affects sleep and sleep also affects stress.”

In Toto’s second research project, she tried to better understand the correlation between personality and stress. She completed this project in the fall of 2017. In her research, she looked at how emotional stability affects stress.

In her third and current research project, Toto is expanding on the data that she found while completing her second project. Over the course of the spring semester, Toto will look into how anxiety plays a role in the relationship between stress and personality.

Toto plans to submit her research to the Fordham Undergraduate Research Journal (FURJ). Although Toto has done many research projects, she said that this will be the first time that she will be publishing her findings.

“It was very hard [learning how to write a psychology research paper,]” Toto said. “There were a lot of variables, and I’m not the best at statistics. Dr. Zimmerman has been a big help with that.”

Her research paper is due before the Fordham Undergraduate Research Symposium, where she’ll have to present her findings. The Symposium will be held on April 11 in the second floor of McGinley.

Toto hopes her research will help more students recognize if they are predisposed to anxiety and stress. She said that there should be more information available about anxiety and stress so that people are aware of how to manage it.

“My research isn’t focused on finding out ways to deal with the stress,” Toto said. “It’s more focused on figuring out who is stressed, which is the first step to figuring out how to fix that.”