The final results of research in any field are usually presented in the form of a cut-and-dry, matter-of-fact manuscript published in a scientific journal.  This gives an air of finality which belies the fact that the research process takes place largely in a gray area of following hunches, reevaluating assumptions, and not being certain what the data will show.  My experience as a University Honors Summer Scholar opened my eyes to the challenges involved in conducting research.

            The brain is complicated.  At the beginning of the summer, I thought that I had a pretty good understanding of the brain mechanisms involved in stress regulation.  But after powering through my reading list of 45 articles, I realized that I had barely scratched the surface.  Conducting research requires substantial background knowledge of a diverse web of phenomena and how they relate to one another.  As I enhanced my knowledge base, I found it necessary to research many more topics in order to thoroughly understand my project.

            Another major challenge was the enormous amount of time required to collect the self-report, , and physiological data from each participant.  Data collection alone consumed five to eight person-hours per participant – that is, when a main experimenter, a camera operator, and a participant could all make it to the lab at once.  Many more person-hours were spent waiting for participants to arrive, which taught me another important lesson:  always bring a book.Neuropsychology

            Working on this project also taught me that it is harder than it looks to get a group of about 30 people – mostly undergraduate students – to stay organized and on-task.  Dr. Bridgett’s laboratory analyzes a very large amount of data from each participant, and individual research assistants are responsible for each step in the process of collecting, organizing, and interpreting that data.  This means that everyone involved must be on the same page, whether that page is using the same code to enter questionnaire data into the computer or inputting all leftover data by a certain deadline.  Confusion about these expectations typically meant that my weekend would involve a lot of entering, correcting, or tracking down data.

            These challenges would have been far more stressful without the help of my faculty mentors, Dr. David Bridgett and Dr. Angela Grippo.  Their experience with similar hindrances allowed them to guide me as smoothly as possible through the research process.  I have also been able to share with them the experience of finding significant results.  For instance, it was exciting to discover with Dr. Bridgett that the laboratory’s new physiological equipment was working properly and that our measurement of cumulative stress was producing the expected results.  Although my main hypotheses have not yet been confirmed, I have found some interesting results that I hope to present at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science this summer.


Overcoming Challenges

By far the most challenging portion of my research centered on the troubleshooting of the straw tube tension test. Before delving into the difficulties in running this portion of the experiment, along with the techniques that I eventually used to overcome these hardships, it is best that I share some of the physics background regarding what exactly I was trying to accomplish.PastedGraphic-5

Technical details aside, the primary purpose of this portion of my research was to design a non-contact setup that would register the tension in one of the straw tubes used in the muon g-2 drift chamber. Considering that the tension could not be measured by a simple force meter once the straws were glued into a place, a process was devised in which a straw was made to vibrate inside of a magnetic field with a loudspeaker and the resulting generated EMF signal digitized by an oscilloscope, thus providing the necessary information to measure the tension.

While the aforementioned process seemed pretty simple on paper, things began to break down during the phase of data collection (i.e. I wasn’t getting a noticeable signal). This issue was fairly serious considering that without any worthwhile data, I would effectively have nothing to show for my entire summer of research.  Increasing the gravity of the issue, the lack of signal from my electrical circuit made diagnosing the problem even more troublesome (dead circuit aside, the possible causes for error were many).  Finally, making the task seemingly impossible, the lack of a lab manual or previous research to cross-check my setup made things all the more difficult.

Now, considering that this is a blog entry and not a short novel on my many failed attempts to getting my experiment to work, I will skip over the trial and error portion of this story and state that I eventually got the signal and data that I was looking for. None of this, however, would have been possible without the trouble shooting lessons that I picked up along the way.

First, and foremost, speaking to my peers and seeking help from my adviser were instrumental in diagnosing the problem. Although I used to think that working alone was something to be lauded, I quickly learned that in the laboratory setting it is very ineffective.  Receiving a different outlook on a problem can be very rewarding even if it doesn’t yield an answer right away as it helps to mitigate the tunnel vision effect that can occur when working alone.PastedGraphic-3

The next troubleshooting practice was more of a lesson in hindsight, but nevertheless a good practice when performing an experiment. When going through the possible causes of your problem it is always helpful to have duplicate parts to check for component malfunctions. As it turned out, the one part of my setup that I did not have a duplicate of (a signal amplifier) had burned an internal battery and was not working properly. Had I acted with a bit more diligence and built my own amplifier (I had the spare parts to do so), as opposed to relying on the fact that the amplifier was working before, the defect in my setup would have been diagnosed much quicker.

Finally, this ordeal further convinced me to the importance of taking proper lab notes. Maintaining a good record of one’s procedure is not only a good organizational tool to conducting an experiment, but also an excellent method of giving insight to other contributing members of the project.

My Connection to the Muon g-2 Experiment

photoAs a student pursuing a degree in physics, the decision to involve myself in the Muon g-2 Experiment was driven by several key factors. Among these components that connected me to my research, the aspiration of attending graduate school was definitely a motivating factor. Given that a certain level of research experience is required to even be considered as a suitable candidate for an RA position, it was almost an obligation, rather than a choice, that I would seek to obtain some form of undergraduate research. In this sense, the invaluable opportunity provided to me by the Summer Scholars in the g-2 Experiment was a chance I could simply not pass up on as it would serve as an excellent introduction to the world of particle physics and allow me to increase my odds of becoming a future research candidate.g-2A (2)

Another reason why the g-2 project caught my eye was because of its connection to Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Having lived in Kane County for the majority of my life, I had always been drawn to the allure of Fermilab due to its reputation as one of the leading particle physics research facilities in United States. Having gone on tours of the Tevatron (particle accelerator) and attended Saturday Morning Physics seminars as a high school student, I had long held the fantasy of one day walking through the revolving doors of Wilson Hall not as a visitor, but as a collaborating physicist. Thus, by committing myself to the Muon g-2 Experiment I understood that I would be one step closer to someday achieving this goal.

Finally, and perhaps the fundamental connection to why I chose to work on the g-2 project, was my desire to finally test my physics knowledge that I had gained in the classroom and apply it to real world situations. Although my laboratory classes at NIU had given me a glimpse of what research might be like, I had always wondered as to how things would change when dealing with experiments that were at the leading edge of scientific discovery. The Muon g-2 Experiment will grant me the unique opportunity to test this knowledge and gain even more insight from highly qualified scientists and professors. I can only hope to take full advantage of this amazing opportunity as I am positive that it will shape the outcome of my future career.

Challenges of my research

ChallengeThe main challenges I have faced while doing my research is from the qualitative component of my research. This qualitative aspect includes 12 interviews from professionals who work with children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). I have interviewed three professionals from each of the following four fields: occupational therapy (OT), speech therapy (SLP), behavioral therapy (BT), and special education. The main challenge I faced with these interviews, was finding professionals to do them—especially in special education and behavioral therapy. With special education, it was difficult because I mainly had to reach out to school districts in the northern Illinois region, and they were not very responsive or helpful. Another issue I faced with finding special education professionals is that they have such a wide range of children with disabilities that they work with; it was difficult to find ones proficient enough in the area of children with ASD to interview. Another challenge I faced was finding behavioral therapists, mainly because I have no connections or network in that field and they just were not as easy to locate as OT’s and SLP’s. I also had the same problem I had with special educators—I found that behavioral therapists work with such a wide range of children with emotional and developmental disabilities that it was hard to find professionals experienced or well versed in working with children with ASD. However, when I did find three professionals who were BT’s and three who were special educators, I got a lot of good feedback and information through the interviews! My mentor also helped me a lot along the way—making the connections for me or reaching out to professionals she knew who knew other professionals.

To enhance my project, I did observe some of the professionals I interviewed. Although these observations are not a part of my research study—they were valuable experiences that helped me to better understand the different techniques used in different fields and how the individual therapies or services could benefit children with ASD in a multidimensional way.

My Faculty Mentors

Over the summer, my faculty mentors provided me with much-needed direction and moral support.  My primary mentor was Dr. David Bridgett, director of NIU’s Emotion Regulation and Temperament Laboratory, where my experiment and data analyses were carried out.  Because of the neurobiological aspects of my project, I also enlisted the help of Dr. Angela Grippo, who runs the Grippo Laboratory at NIU.  Dr. Bridgett’s lab is primarily interested in the development of self-regulation and temperament, whereas Dr. Grippo’s lab is more focused on the biochemical processes which underlie physical and psychological illness.

Early in the summer, Dr. Bridgett and I met to outline our goals.  We agreed on a list of 45 academic articles related to childhood trauma, stress, and self-regulation for me to read – five per week.  At first I was less than enthusiastic about this assignment, but I quickly realized how valuable this background information would be for my project.  As the summer progressed and my understanding of the relevant literature deepened, Dr. Bridgett and I met periodically to refine my hypotheses and steer my project toward completion.

My data was already being collected as part of an ongoing project in Dr. Bridgett’s lab, so a large portion of my summer was devoted to analyzing that Mentoring puzzledata.  When it came to the heart rate data, each heartbeat had to be manually double-checked, or “cleaned,” due to the presence of artifacts.  Thankfully, Dr. Grippo already had experience cleaning heart rate data collected from rodents in her lab.  After a brief tutorial from the professionals at MindWare, who supplied the equipment and software, my mentors and I devised a procedure for cleaning the data for my project, and I got to work.

Throughout the summer, I encountered plenty of obstacles and had to acquire a surprising number of new skills.  Whether I thought half of my data was missing, I had to learn a new computer program to conduct statistical tests, or I just needed a pep talk, my mentors were eager to show me what to do next.  With their help, I was able to stay on track while incorporating some of my other interests, such as mindfulness, into my project.  I would not have made it this far without them, and I look forward to continuing my work with Dr. Bridgett and Dr. Grippo as I complete my final year at NIU.

My Faculty Adviser

Having a great deal of involvement in both the NIU physics community and at Fermilab, it was only logical that assistant professor Dr. Eads serve as my faculty mentor for my summer research. A former NIU alumnus, Dr. Eads detectorcontributed to the DØ experiment at Fermilab and continued his work at FNAL by serving as the current NIU group leader for the Muon g-2 Experiment. His strong connection to the g-2 project granted me access to a myriad of resources exclusively available at Fermilab including the ability to attend g-2 meetings and seminars. As a pupil of Dr. Eads I was also able to collaborate with other FNAL physicists, NIU graduate students and NIU professors committed to the g-2 cause. While there are other NIU professors who also conduct research at Fermilab, Dr. Eads’ direct connection to the g-2 project, outstanding achievement in the field of particle physics and overall willingness to take me as his student made him the ideal adviser.

Apart from being very knowledgeable on the topic of particle physics research, Dr. Eads’ strong background in secondary science education also proved invaluable. The advantages of having an equally skilled scientist and teacher as a mentor immediately became apparent as Dr. Eads’ excellent debriefings on the g-2 project allowed me to quickly become integrated into the task at hand (an overwhelming endeavor considering my limited experience in particle physics research). Whether it was working in the lab or reading articles pertaining to the experiment, Dr. Eads was always available if I was in need of assistance. Professor Eads’ attributes as a patient instructor, attentive listener and strong motivator made my transition from physics student to aspiring physicist a pleasant journey and I find it difficult to fathom a better suited instructor. Having completed the summer portion of my involvement in the Muon g-2 Experiment, I cannot state my excitement to working another two semesters under the guidance of Dr. Eads.

Why I Care about Childhood Trauma

For almost ten years, my parents have provided a temporary (and occasionally permanent) home for children who, for some reason or another, cannot be cared for by their biological parents.  Many of my foster brothers and sisters have experienced severe childhood stress, which is a risk factor for many behavioral and emotional problems.  I often wonder what cognitive factors promote resilience to early traumatic experiences, and what interventions might be useful to cultivate normal development in these sad situations.

Over the past few years, I have been studying the mental processes that guide human thought and behavior more generally.  After all, even those of us who did not suffer childhood trauma often fail to exercise reason in the face of overpowering emotions or urges.  As I looked for factors that might give reason an edge, I came across the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness.  To cultivate mindfulness, a person learns to observe his or her thoughts, feelings, and sensations without reacting or clinging to them.  Rather than forming opinions and getting lost in a runaway train of thought, the person strives for a state of acceptance and equanimity that is sometimes referred to as “bare awareness” or “friendly awareness.”  A rapidly growing body of research indicates that mindfulness training of this sort promotes physical, psychological, and social well-being.childhood_trauma_color2

Many of the stress-reducing benefits of mindfulness are related to executive functions, a set of cognitive processes involved in attention and planning, which are utilized to practice mindfulness and are strengthened by the practice of mindfulness.  They include the flexibility to divert one’s mind away from stress-generating thoughts and toward more productive ones; the presence of mind to make healthy lifestyle choices; and the ability to evaluate one’s circumstances from multiple divergent perspectives.  It is easy to see how these faculties can reduce stress if they used properly, and there is plenty of research attesting to this fact.  My project investigates their influences on the long-term accumulation of stress that begins very early in life, known as allostatic load.

I hope to demonstrate that executive functions reduce the impact of early traumatic experiences on allostatic load.  If my results bear this out, it will likely mean that interventions focused on improving executive functions in early childhood can enhance resilience to early life stress, leading to better physical and psychological health outcomes.  Mindfulness training in preschool is currently being investigated, and it is a promising avenue for fostering executive functions early in life.  With more research into factors that protect against the harmful accumulation of stress, there will hopefully be widespread adoption of programs geared toward helping children develop resilience and live balanced, healthy lives.