Honors Summer Scholars: Final Blog Post

Being a University Honors Summer Scholar was the highlight of my research work at NIU. It meant that my research background from Research Rookies had prepared me to take on a bigger more in-depth research project for my University Honors CapstP1000988one. I learned that it takes a very high achieving student to win such an opportunity and award, and I was proud to be one of those three students.

During the summer I spent 20 hours a week, every week, working on my research.  Reading, writing a literature review, completing IRB, emailing, finding participants, meetings, figuring out variables, analyzing the Pre Elementary Education Longitudinal Study Data, conducting interviews, etc. The summer was intense with research. When it came to the fall, things definitely calmed down on the research end. My classes and extra curriculars were rough and I couldn’t dedicate as much time as I wanted to towards my research. However, spring semester turned everything right back around, and my focus was once again research. I presented at 3 research events (NCUR, URAD, and the Honors Scholars Reception), and besides being busy preparing for those, I also was writing my Honors Capstone.

The spring semester was definitely my favorite semester research wise. I was able to do what I wanted to do with my research—share it with others! My first presentation was at NCUR, The National Conference for Undergraduate Research. NIU’s University Honors Program and Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning funded 15 other students and myself to go down to this conference in Louisville, Kentucky to present out research. The opportunity was amazing, eye opening, and rare. I got to see what other undergraduate students were researching, how their research levels compared to what students at NIU were researching, and how my NIU peers performed their presentations. I have to say, NIU is on top of its game as far as undergraduate research is concerned. I was so blown away and impressed with my peers. On the second day of the conference is when I presented my oral presentation for my research. I was excited that I took a challenge and decided to present orally instead of doing a poster, which I had already had experience doing. Thankfully, my presentation when smoothly! My audience had lots of good questions, and they seemed very receptive and engaged.

Although my final capstone project was not originally what I had planned it to be, I was happy with the work I had done. I completed 11 healthcare provider interviews, and I wish I could have done more and on a broader scale. I also did a data analysis with the Pre Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS) data, but the analysis was not a logistic regression which I had originally planned to do. My statistical program refused to cooperate with me, and my results were so skewed and unusable, I had to find another way to utilize the PEELS data. So, instead of interpreting the odds ratio result from the logistic regression, I simply looked at the tables and trends of my independent and dependent variables. It was a simplified method to my quantitative work, but I think it still had significance.

From these experiences, my presentations and my failures, I have learned a lot. I have learned how to cater to different audiences that I am presenting to, how to teach my research to others not just regurgitate it. I have also learned how to structure qualitative research questions better, how to analyze qualitative work, and how to overcome obstacles or unexpected circumstances throughout the research process.

I am proud to say that I will be attending Colorado State University in the fall of 2014. There, I will be pursuing my Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. I am also delighted to mention that I have gotten a research assistantship at the Occupational Therapy Department’s Child Participation in Environment Research Laboratory. This assistantship would not have been granted to me if it were not for my opportunities and award through the University Honors Summer Scholars Program. I can’t thank the University Honors Program enough for all they have done for me, through this program and others. They have made me more prepared for my future, have made me a more competitive student, have given me rare and unique opportunities to learn and grow…for that I thank them wholeheartedly.

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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.

Working with my faculty mentor

mcpuzzleWorking with Dr. Lucy Bilaver from the Public Health department has been wonderful thus far. She is not only a patient and informative mentor, but she also reaches out to me about other opportunities in my realm of interests and she supports me and the work I am doing as an undergraduate researcher. Dr. Bilaver has extended opportunities for me to volunteer at an event that is providing free screening for ASD, she has allowed me come with her to an Autism Task Force meeting in Chicago to network and meet potential interviewee’s, and she has also invited me to go to a conference called the “The Arc of Illinois ‘Living With Autism’ Conference” with her in September.

Meeting Dr. Bilaver for the first time at the end of spring semester, I knew it was going to be a good fit. She is talkative, elaborative, and open. Her background in research with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) fit exactly the kind of project I was looking to do. She helped me to shape my initial research objectives and topic, but she allowed me to be the primary creator. After creating my topic, Dr. Bilaver remained available to meet for questions and overviews and she was prompt at emailing. Dr. Bilaver assisted me in the understanding of the Pre-Elementary Educational Longitudinal Study data, setting up logistic regression models, and how to run regressions. She also assisted me in contacting and networking with professionals to interview and she also purchased me an audio recorder for this qualitative part of my research. Dr. Bilaver and I have met about every two weeks over the summer, and have emailed multiple times a week. Because this is my third year conducting research, Dr. Bilaver’s role as a mentor has been slightly more laid back, but when I do need help she is always there. Overall, working with Dr. Bilaver has been a great experience and I can’t wait to continue working with her throughout my senior year as my project is beginning to really take shape.

Discovering ASD

The reason I chose to research within the realm of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), is primarily because I grew up with three relatives that are also diagnosed on the spectrum. Growing up with people with a disability like ASD is truly eye opening. You naturally learn to be an advocate and you learn to adapt to the way they think. I have two cousins, Cody and Jarred, who are on the Autism Spectrum, and my little sister, Michelle, is 13 years old and is also on the Autism Spectrum. My relationship with them, especially Michelle, has always guided me towards a career path in the medical field. I hope to be the best kind of professional, a professional who is passionate, diligent, and patient.  I aspire to be an occupational therapist (OT) because it unites all of my interests: ASD, people with disabilities, anatomy and physiology, and research. Not only does OT unite all of my interests, but it will allow me to work with a people that I am passionate about working with. My advocacy for people with disabilities will shine through in my professional work.ln4

People with ASD have difficulty with verbal and nonverbal communication skills, social interactions, and they often adopt repetitive behaviors. ASD is a lifelong disability, it cannot be cured, but there are therapies and services that people with ASD can receive that help them to become an integral and involved part of society. In my research, I focus on these services, such as: occupational therapy, speech therapy, special education, developmental therapy, and behavioral therapy. The increase in the population of children diagnosed with ASD has been increasing rapidly since the 1990’s, and I think it is important to address this issue from a multidisciplinary perspective. My research interests are rooted deep, and I hope to continue to research ASD for the rest of my education and for the majority of my future career.

Mixed Methods Study on Treatments/Services for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

lnAutism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication, and repetitive behaviors. Research within the field of ASD is booming, and for good reason—it is estimated to be as prevalent as 1 in 88 children now, and the number has been noticeably increasing since the 1970’s.

My two broad research questions are: What are the characteristics of children and families receiving different treatments for ASD? What are the facilitators of and barriers to effective treatment from the perspective of therapists serving young children with ASD? My research is focused on identifying what types of services are provided to different characteristics and demographics of children with ASD. The services I am focusing on are well researched and are considered evidence based practices, they include: occupational therapy, behavioral therapy/applied behavioral analysis, special education, and speech therapy.

This research will be done by completing a secondary data analysis on a portion of data called the Pre-Elementary Education Longitudinal Study (PEELS), and by also interviewing a dozen professionals that work with children with ASD on a frequent basis. The qualitative analysis will rely on the PEELS data set—this data set contains all major variables that I intend to focus on in my research. PEELS has data on over 3,000 children with disabilities, including around 450 with ASD. This data includes information on what services the children were provided with, demographics of the children, child assessments, family interviews, and other questionnaires. The Institute of Education Sciences has a data set called Powerstats that is publically available, which provides users with access to a portion of data from the entire PEELS data set. For my project, I will complete both a univariate and multivariate logistic regression of the Powerstats data. In conjunction with the Powerstats analysis, I will also conduct qualitative research via interviews with services providers that work with children who have ASD. I will be contacting different outpatient therapy clinics, hospitals, schools, and referral agencies in the Northern Illinois region to conduct semi-structured interviews with professionals that work with children who have ASD. I am going to complete extensive interviews with a minimum of twelve professionals throughout the summer, three from each of the following four fields: occupational therapy, speech language therapy, behavioral therapy/applied behavioral analysis, and special education. Professionals who decide to participate in the research project will be asked a series open ended questions designed to elicit their perspective on the types of services provided to children with ASD and the barriers and facilitators of service effectiveness.

The combination of a data analysis and an interview analysis will hopefully make my research both unique and influential to the wider autism community. Because early intervention strategies are so crucial for the development of these children, my hopes is that it will be beneficial to both professionals working with children with ASD and for parents of children with ASD.ln3