Research experience matters!

I applied for the University Honors Summer Scholars program in order to strengthen my application for graduate school.  Having completed my capstone project, it is easy to see how the program helped me accomplish this.  The Honors Department gave me the resources to pursue my own research idea from start to finish, which is an invaluable experience for an applicant to have.  As testimony to the usefulness of my Summer Scholarship, I was recently admitted to the doctoral program in Psychological & Brain Sciences at my top choice of schools, the University of California, Santa Barbara.

P1000979 During my interviews for graduate school, the advice I received from my advisors was confirmed:  independent research experience is the most important factor when applying for research-based PhD programs such as psychology or neuroscience.  Because of the large time commitment required for such an undertaking, the Summer Scholars program provided generous stipends to ensure that my fellow Scholars and I could devote our full attention to our respective projects.  This allowed me to spend my summer brainstorming with my advisors, creating my experimental protocol, and beginning to write a manuscript.

Data collection continued into the Spring semester, when I ran the final analyses and defended my results before a committee of faculty members.  I recently returned from the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science, an international conference in San Francisco, where I presented some of the data from my project.  This was a great opportunity to practice presenting my own work to other researchers in the field.  And it was a perfect excuse for a road trip.

I count my Summer Scholarship among the most valuable and memorable parts of my NIU experience – along with the chance to work with my wonderful advisors, Dr. Angela Grippo and Dr. David Bridgett; the incredibly eye-opening Foundations of Psychedelic Studies course I took with Dr. Thomas Roberts; the marvelous friends I’ve made over the years; and, of course, the lagoon.  The program is an incredible resource for self-motivated students looking to make the most of their undergraduate career and gain a competitive edge when applying for graduate school.  Please keep the funding coming!

Thanks to UHSS, I’ve had the opportunity to experience firsthand some of the challenges involved in conducting an original research project.  I feel well-prepared to move out to sunny California and take the next steps along my educational path.  Thanks for your interest!

            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.

 

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.

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.

Cognitive Moderators of the Cumulative Effects of Childhood Stress

Stressful experiences, especially in childhood, can have impacts that extend far into the future. Fortunately, we humans are endowed with a set of cognitive abilities known as executive function, which enables us to minimize the effects of stress. Executive function allows us to override many of our biological impulses and engage in goal-directed behavior. We all use executive function every day, for everything from playing video games to studying while our friends are out having fun or stopping ourselves before we finish off the whole bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. These abilities also help us organize our lives to avoid stressful situations, and to cope with stress when it inevitably occurs, for instance by framing a seemingly negative situation in a more neutral or positive light.

Evolution has provided us with the fight or flight response, which utilizes a biological pathway known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis,HPA to prepare us either to engage or flee from a perceived threat. This was extremely useful back in the days of running from bears and hunting deer with our bare hands, but we have come a long way since then. Nowadays, the fight or flight response can be quite a nuisance if it is triggered by something like an upcoming exam, to which neither fighting nor fleeing is a productive response. Nevertheless, this response is activated whenever the body perceives a threat, and this constant readjustment of the body’s state of arousal to meet environmental demands is called allostasis.

Repeated activation of the HPA axis can cause wear and tear on the body, which is known as allostatic load. This wear and tear is spread across many physiological systems, so it can be measured in a variety of ways. Researchers typically quantify allostatic load using some combination of stress hormone levels, blood pressure, heart rate variability, body mass index, and other potential biomarkers of cumulative stress.

Extreme or chronic stress can be particularly damaging early in life, since the body’s stress response is still developing. For example, if a child grows up in an abusive or unpredictable home environment, he or she will be primed to constantly be on guard and to react strongly to any perceived threat. This priming occurs in part because of an overactive HPA axis, which can harm many other physiological systems and set the stage for the further accumulation of stress later in life.

Although executive function has been shown to reduce the effects of stress, very little work has been done to determine its impact on allostatic load. It is allostaticalso unclear which components of executive function – including working memory, cognitive inhibition, and set shifting – are responsible for its stress-reducing effects. My project is an attempt to clarify this confusion. I will use questionnaires, cognitive assessments, and physiological data to measure childhood stress, allostatic load, and components of executive function in NIU undergraduate students. If I find that childhood stress contributes to allostatic load, I will use statistical analyses to determine which, if any, components of executive function buffer this effect.