Dr. Meara Faw: Saliva’s Link to Better Communication

Cryogenic freezing. Wet lab protocols. Dehydroepiandrosterone Sulfate (DHEAS). You’re not likely to hear these words fall from the mouths of most communication studies faculty when discussing their research. But, if you’re Assistant Professor Dr. Meara Faw, these scientific terms are a clear path to advancing the realm of what we know about interpersonal communication.

Faw is the latest faculty member to join the Department of Communication Studies at Colorado State University. An Idaho native, Faw earned a B.A. in communication and Spanish at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in communication from the University of Washington in Seattle. From the fall of 2014 through the spring of 2017, she held an assistant professor position at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

It’s safe to say Faw is the only faculty on the second floor of the A-wing in the Behavioral Sciences Building whose office, in addition to personal artifacts and a small library of books that have shaped her academic career, is home to carefully packaged spit samples that await data analysis.

“I’m interested in understanding how our relationships contribute to our health at an emotional, social, or physiological level,” Faw said in a recent interview. “How do relationships and interactions with those we are closest to make us happier, healthier people?”

Faw’s research gets at that question through the lens of social support — what we say and do to help one another get through life — and how that affects our health. To assess this impact, Faw collects and analyzes cortisol levels in saliva samples before, during, and following supportive and conflicting conversations between friends, partners, and other support givers.

“There’s a strong connection between our social world – the help that we give each other, the aid that we confer – and our health and well-being,” Faw says. “A long history of research on social support in sociology, psychology, and communication studies has shown that when we have support we are happier and healthier people.”

On one level, Faw thinks about health as a social outcome. Do you have good relationships? Do you have people you can turn to when problems are challenging? Do they give you the type of help and support that you need? Are you able to have positive constructive conflict with your romantic partner or not and what does that mean?

But she’s also interested in emotional and psychological health. How are you coping with your life? Are you lonely and do how do your relationships affect that loneliness? “One of the strongest connections we know from research between social support and the bigger black box of health is depression and anxiety,” Faw says.

As an undergrad at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, Faw was on her way to triple major in biology, chemistry, and Spanish. She thought she wanted a career in health or veterinary sciences. Then she found herself drawn to a communication theory class – in her junior year.

“It really clicked with me when I realized I can combine my interest in health and well-being with that of communication studies to understand how our relationships and our interactions with other people actually affect our health and well-being,” says Faw. “I was really interested in people’s lives and stories and how that affected the way they respond to the world around them both from the social perspective as well as what’s physiologically going on in their bodies.”

To this day that interest buoys her research. “What is it about the way we communicate that makes our messages better and helps people to feel better?” she asks. “How can we help them to experience more of those benefits?” This goes for both parties, the person receiving social support as well as the one giving it.

Her award-winning dissertation, “Supporting the Supporter: Social Support, Stress, and Wellbeing among Caregivers of Children with Severe Disabilities,” explores this dyad, as do many of her other projects.

Remember those saliva samples hanging out in Faw’s office? They’re part of a study she began at Rutgers titled “Dual-Process Approach to Supportive Message Processing and Creation: Physiological Correlates and Implications.” The study targets pairs of female friends who are randomly selected to be either the giver or receiver of supportive messages in a 10-minute conversation in which the receiver shares a problem that’s bothering them.

Faw collects four saliva samples from each participant over the course of one 90-minute session. Her objective is to analyze the cortisol levels in each sample. Cortisol is produced by the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis in response to stress. It enters the blood stream and after about 20 minutes passively diffuses in our saliva. By looking at cortisol levels, Faw can see what’s happening during and after each interaction. Is the conversation helping the recipient’s stress load, or making it worse?

Faw is fully capable of doing her own laboratory analysis. “There’s something very Zen about that,” Faw says. “It also feels great to have total control over what your data has been through so if there are any issues you know about them.”

She needs a cryogenic freezer for biomedical materials and a wet lab to piece together the puzzle of health and support message. Fortunately, Colorado State University offers both. In fact, CSU’s emphasis on research and its facilities – along with being back out West – were part of what drew Faw here. Now she’s looking for a CSU colleague – with a lab – who might be interested in collaborating.

Faw says her data from saliva has indicated some unexpected implications – and prompted further questions – about support messages.

Faw applies an existing system for coding and rating support messages to the messages spoken during the 10-minute conversations, which she records, and then compares that to the physiological data. Not surprising, she says, is that results show high quality supportive messages are best for recipient health.

What she did not expect to find is that messages rated “kind of in the middle and no so great” were equivalent in terms of health outcomes. That is, middle to not so great messages generated similar and higher cortisol levels compared to those measured against quality messages.

“So, if middle and not great messages are functioning at the same level in terms of how it affects our health and well-being, what’s it going to take for people to provide better support?” Faw asks. “Is there a way we can help recipients recognize the effort someone is putting in to help them achieve those health benefits, even if the support they are getting is not great?”

Faw says the onus has largely been on the support provider to improve their communication skills – and subsequently help recipients feel better. But Faw sees room for change. “I think there’s a piece missing,” she posits. “I think there are things we can do with the recipient when they’re not right in the middle of a crisis to help them recognize the effort being made.”

Faw gets excited thinking about this kind of practical application from her research. “One of the things that I really love about CSU and our department is our commitment to transformational scholarship,” Faw says. “We actually want to see lives improve because of what we’ve studied and learned.”

For Faw, that means using her research to help people have healthier, more satisfying relationships that give them better health in the process. And taking a few saliva samples in the process.

  • – by Carol Busch