Psychology professor remembered for her sincere personality


Courtesy of Carolyn Cutrona

Alison Morris, former psychology professor at ISU, died Nov. 12 at Mary Greeley Medical Center. Morris’ students and colleagues remember her for her extensive research, as well as her love for storm-chasing.

Erin Malloy

Jason Geller, a Ph.D. student in psychology, began to worry when he hadn’t heard back from his adviser, Alison Morris, for a couple of days.

It was the week of the annual Psychonomic Society conference in Long Beach, California, and students and faculty of the cognitive psychology department at ISU began arriving at the hotel one-by-one. Geller was to present the research he and Morris had been working on for years on the morning of Nov. 21, yet no one had heard from Morris. What was usually a time for reunion and celebration quickly turned devastating.

Morris, an associate professor in the psychology department at ISU, passed away at Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames on Nov. 21. The cause of death was not determined, although her colleagues believe it was potentially a blood clot.

Morris, 56, hadn’t been feeling well for the month prior to her death. She checked herself into the hospital on the night of Nov. 19, was hospitalized in the ICU on Nov. 20 and passed away on the morning of Nov. 21. Morris had chosen not to tell anyone—including her brother—that she was hospitalized, said Veronica Dark, professor of psychology.

Dark received a phone call from Carolyn Cutrona, professor and chair of the psychology department, in her hotel room on the morning of Nov. 21 about Morris’ death.

“Carolyn decided not to immediately send the news out to everybody,” Dark said. “She was going to give me time to make sure I talked to [Geller] because the mentor-mentee relationship with a graduate student and faculty member is very close.”

Dark told the others from Iowa State at the conference, but decided to wait to tell Geller until after he presented his poster about his and Morris’ research.

“I kind of broke down in the conference hall,” Geller said, regarding the moment he found out of Morris’ passing. “It was a pretty horrible experience, but everyone was there for support.”

Morris joined the ISU faculty in 2002. She received her B.S. in education in communication disorders and her M.S. in speech pathology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She worked for 13 years as a speech pathologist and got her Ph.D. in psychology from Boston University in 2000.

Morris became Geller’s adviser when he joined the Ph.D. program in 2012. Both Geller and Morris did research about how people processed words.

Their research involved eye tracking and pupillometry—the measurement of pupil diameter as it relates to cognitive processing. Morris was developing a computational model of how people recognize words. Geller said Morris had been working on the model on a daily basis for the past several years, and he hopes to be able to get access to the data and complete the model.

Geller said it’s hard to be back on campus, see her office and do the research that they used to do together. Both of Geller’s parents have passed away, and he said he viewed Morris as a parental figure.

“I looked up to her, and it seemed like she always cared about me,” he said. “I think any person that interacted with her genuinely loved her. She was accepting of everyone.”

Dark said Morris was a “workaholic” the entire year, but when spring break came each year, she was on her way to Aruba to sit on the beach with a book and a Mai-Tai.

Morris was also a trained storm chaser and was enamored with weather. She was a part of SKYWARN, a volunteer program of severe weather spotters, and would always email her colleagues and students and alert them of any bad weather.

Cutrona said Morris led the most recent search committee in the spring of 2014 and had a steady leadership style that “just got things done.”

“She wouldn’t let people deviate from the rules, and we ended up with some great hires,” Cutrona said.

Alison Phillips and her husband were two of the hires Morris’ committee made. They initially took Morris out to dinner to say thank you, and then they began inviting her to their house every other Friday for crazy rummy and wine tasting.

“There was something I liked about her instantly that made me keep inviting her over,” Phillips said. “She had this great, dry sense of humor and was also very sincere and almost gushy in other ways.”

Morris’ colleagues and students said she would pay attention to the details of everyone’s life.

“It showed she really cared about you—enough to remember the little stuff and think to send you things about it,” Phillips said.

Morris would send Phillips links to a good wine store in Des Moines or wineries to visit. Because Morris didn’t like dogs and Dark did, she would e-mail Dark if there were a news story about a dog biting somebody. She would text her friend Dawn Sweet, associate professor of psychology, on every Sunday during football season about the Green Bay Packers—Morris’ favorite team—or the Eagles—Sweet’s favorite team.

“On Sundays, I still reach for my phone, thinking, ‘Oh, I have to tell Alison,'” Sweet said. “I’ve just been sick to my stomach. I don’t believe it.”

Sweet said if Morris were here, Morris would say, “Oh, go have a beer and a burger and go watch football.”

“I don’t think she realized how much people liked her or respected her,” Sweet said. “She flew below the radar because she didn’t have some big ego. She had perspective, and she was free and easy with good, sound advice. There are so many students who are not going to benefit from having her in class, and I think that’s a shame.”

Morris is survived by her brother and cousin. The visitation is from 10 a.m. to noon on Dec. 13 at Adams & Soderstrum funeral home in Ames, followed by the memorial service.