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.
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.