SLU Fellowships | St. Lawrence University Psychology

SLU Fellowships

Summer 2020

Annan Yue/ Advisor: Cathy Crosby

A Qualitative Exploration of Reachout of St. Lawrence County

Established in 1976, Reachout is a free, non-judgmental crisis and information hotline serving residents of St. Lawrence County. It answers after-hours calls for other human services agencies as well as operates a mobile crisis team that sends trained counselors to assess people at risk. I completed the training and became an official volunteer at Reachout in the Spring of 2019. It was one of the most unique experiences I’ve had not only because of the nature of crisis hotline itself but the special environment and community of Reachout. Therefore, I decided to focus my research on Reachout. My study aimed at providing a perspective for anyone who wants to learn more about crisis hotlines and, more specifically, a suicide intervention service in one of the poorest counties in New York State.

With the help of my mentor, I came up with questions for participants in 4 parts: why and for how long individuals been volunteers, the volunteer experience at Reachout, community dynamics at Reachout, and the success and future of Reachout. The executive director at Reachout, Karen Easter, advertised the study via Facebook and other platforms as well as through face to face conversations.

All participants were recruited via email. Individual interviews were held with 14 volunteers, including 7 former and 7 current volunteers. Two staff members were also interviewed, as well as Ms. Easter. All interviews were conducted through videoconferencing and were transcribed. Both researchers read and coded the responses, producing the following themes.

First, participants tended to join Reachout mainly because they wanted to help others, or they wanted some experience for their future career. One interesting finding is that people tend to continue to volunteer unless they move to somewhere else due to graduation or a  job change. Several participants mentioned how lovely the house is for working as well as holding potlucks and other events. For many participants, Reachout is a “second family”, such that continuing to volunteer is a commitment to the family. Participants defined successful volunteers as those who learn from experience and would try their best to help, those who show up and want to do the work, and those who improve the caller’s situation after the call. When asked how they think other staff and volunteers would describe them as a volunteer, they provided adjectives like hardworking, supportive, love to learn, committed, responsible, which are consistent with their standard for a successful volunteer. However, challenges are pretty pervasive. The calls can be difficult when the volunteers feel helpless, when the caller is inappropriate/abusive, and when the call gets really lengthy. In these cases, Reachout is a family where “it is a safe place that people go to and you can vent about anything going on in your life”. Challenges along with a supportive environment were conducive to a longer volunteer career. Lastly, one of the highest agreement was on how to improve Reachout. Participants consistently mentioned three aspects: recruitment, advertising, and making more connections with other resources in the county.

Yanfei Mao/ Advisor: Cheryl Stuntz

Title: Associations Between Character Strengths and Positive Outcomes in the Academic Context

The purpose of this study is to further examine the relationship between academically-focused character strengths (positively valued personality traits) and positive academic outcomes among college students. Over 320 SLU students took an online survey. Results demonstrated (1) a new grouping of character strengths, (2) links between character strengths and academic outcomes for all students, and (3) important differences between groups of students on these relationships.

First, the factor analysis showed new patterns of responses for character strengths regarding academics for all students. Groupings included temperance strengths (prudence, modesty, self-regulation and forgiveness), humanity strengths (love, kindness, teamwork and social intelligence), collaborative resilience strengths (bravery, leadership, teamwork and perseverance), positive perspective strengths (appreciation of beauty, hope, creativity and gratitude) and wisdom & knowledge strengths (love of learning, judgement, curiosity and perspective). Only two strengths, which are humanity and wisdom & knowledge, are similar to the previous categorization of character strengths.

Second, we found some similarities among all students. Students with higher temperance, collaborative resilience, and wisdom & knowledge strengths were more buoyant academically. Similarly, those students with higher humanity, collaborative resilience, and positive perspective but lower wisdom & knowledge strengths were happier. Students who were more academically buoyant had higher life satisfaction, higher overall GPA and course grades, higher general happiness, and higher enjoyment and satisfaction about the college generally and about their courses specifically.

Third, we also found some differences between groups of students on these relationships. Our model examining students with different majors showed that the relationship between character strengths and academic buoyancy differed. For example, for arts/humanities majors higher temperance related to more academic buoyancy, while for science majors higher humanity related to lower academic buoyancy. 2) Our model examining differential relationships by types of course enrolled in indicated that although for most groups of students, higher scores on all character strengths related to lower academic stress, higher humanity related to higher academic stress for students taking social science courses only. 3) Our model examining students with different majors revealed that higher academic buoyancy related to higher overall GPA for science majors only, while our course model suggested that higher academic buoyancy related to higher course grades for students in interdisciplinary courses only.

In sum, we can see some general trends across all students, but we also found that there are still some specific differences among different majors and courses. Academic buoyancy might be an important mechanism linking character strengths and positive academic outcomes.

Peiyu Wang/ Advisor: Adam Fox

Title: Low-cost Touchscreen Operant Chamber Using Rasberry pi

An operant chamber is a common laboratory apparatus in the field of behavioral psychology and neuroscience used to train rodents to engage in a response (e.g., a lever press, or nose poke) to receive a specific outcome (e.g., food reward). These chambers are used in a wide variety of research programs within psychology and neuroscience. A touchscreen operant chamber is similar to a traditional chamber, but the lever-system is replaced by a touchscreen-microcomputer system—greatly enhancing the stimuli-response combinations that can be presented to a subject. A single touch-screen chamber costs $7,055.00 (again without operating interface, $5,910.00, or software, $2,595.00 (note the interface and software can run up to four chambers in this case)) from a commercial supplier. The aim of my project is to build low-cost touchscreen operant chamber using Raspberry pi and python programming with some 3D-printed chamber parts. The total cost of the chamber was approximately $300.

Summer 2019

Hannah Mungenast/ Advisor: Adam Fox

Title: Effects of Time of Day and Light-Dark Cycle on Learning and Behavior in Rats

Rodent models are commonly-used in psychology and neuroscience research because they offer increased experimental control and findings are generalizable to humans. However, one possible dilemma is that rodents are primarily nocturnal, often resulting in disruption of their rest period to perform research tasks, because humans test rodents during our wake period (light). This study used a within-subjects design to investigate effects of time of day and light/dark cycle on impulsivity, motor coordination, and anxiety-like behaviors in rats. Results indicated no differences in impulsivity or motor coordination, but increased anxiety-like behavior when the rats were tested in light conditions compared to dark.

Summer 2018

Breana Griffin/ Advisors: Cathy Crosby and Loraina Ghiraldi

Title: Unraveling the Secrets to the Ideal Study Space for Students at SLU

Because students are expected to spend at least three hours studying for every hour of lecture, access to useful, comfortable, and productive spaces in which to work is crucial for students’ academic success. The purpose of my SLU Fellowship was to explore the relevant scholarly literature, and then identify and assess the informal study spaces available at St. Lawrence University. I also gathered opinions from students, faculty, and staff about their preferences for ideal study spaces.

During the first phase of my project, I conducted an extensive review of environmental psychology literature to identify aspects of the physical environment previously investigated. Previous literature highlighted biophilia, light, color, acoustics, and indoor climate control as characteristics of the environment that may impact task performance. I developed a thorough outline as a foundation for a literature review, which will be part of my Senior Project in the Fall.

 During the second phase of the project, I reviewed assessment data gathered by the Buildings and Ground and Education Technology Committees on classroom spaces at SLU. Sorting through the raw data for patterns proved difficult, as the scale used in the assessment instrument was not very sensitive and the criteria were not very descriptive in nature. However, the optional comments left by the evaluators revealed striking patterns. Redirecting my focus, I categorized the comments as either positive, negative, neutral, or a suggestion, and then coded the comments for major recurring themes. The most common issues included poor projection or podium configuration, poor/outdated furniture and flexibility, overall aesthetic concerns, and overall lighting concerns.

For the third phase of this project, I created a new assessment instrument for the informal study spaces at SLU based on information from the literature review and the classroom assessment. For the purposes of this research, an informal study space was defined as any area in which a student may seek to study or complete homework that is not a formal classroom itself. I used this instrument to catalogue and assess most of the informal study areas on campus. The evaluation could not be completed in full, as there was construction in or around some of the buildings. However, I will finish this assessment as part of my Senior Project this Fall.

During phases 4 and 5, I gathered opinions from students, faculty, and staff about their preferences for the informal spaces available to students at SLU. I held two focus groups with SLU Fellows – one with the Natural Science and Math students, and one with the Humanities, Arts, and Social Science students. In addition, I conducted interviews with almost two dozen faculty and staff from various buildings on campus.

To conclude the Summer project, I met with Vice President of LIT, Justin Sipher, René Thatcher, Director of Services and Outreach, and some members of their staff to discuss current findings and future directions. I am hopeful that this information will lead to more informed decisions about how SLU can provide increasingly useful, productive, and comfortable study spaces for its students.

Grace Wetzel/ Advisor: Serge Onyper

Title: Racial Bias in the Judgment of Music

My Research Fellowship project is titled "Racial Bias in the Judgment of Music." Over the course of fellowship, Dr. Onyper and I looked into the question of racial bias in the arts: does a racial bias exist when individuals judge and rank music? Does this bias change depending on the music genre and the race of the participant? Can this bias affect award distribution? Our study was composed of three experiments.

The first experiment was a Pilot Study, which was necessary to choose songs to be used as stimuli in our main two experiments. Participants listened to a selection of several songs (in either Pop or Rap genres) and rated them for quality and personal preference. They also guessed the race of the artists performing the songs. We were looking for songs that sounded ambiguous enough to be performed by either a White or Black artist. Pilot Study ratings were used to choose three Pop songs and three Rap songs for the true experiments, Experiment 1 and Experiment 2.

In Experiment 1, we implemented these songs and manipulated race of the artist and genre in a simple design. Participants listened to one song only, either Pop or Rap, and the race of the artist was manipulated in an artist description as "White" or "Black." For the same song, half of the participants would be told that the artist was Black and half would be told that the artist was White. We looked for differences between participants' ratings depending whether the artist was identified as Black or White. This portion of the study revealed no significant results.

Experiment 2 had a much more complex design. Participants listened to three songs each, and were put into one of four conditions manipulating the race of the artist. They were either shown three Black artists, three White artists, two Black artists and one White artist, or two White artists and one Black artist. The race of each artist in this experiment was presented via a standardized "artist photo" taken from a Chicago Face Database, accompanied by an artist description. Songs, artist names, artists' race, and artist photos were all counter-balanced across participants. Participants rated each song individually after hearing it, and then were asked to choose a winner for a "Best Emerging Artist" award. The main hypothesis here was that White artists would be chosen as the winner at a rate more frequent than chance, especially by White participants. More participants still need to be recruited for this experiment, and will be over the next month. The preliminary data, although not yet backed by statistical significance, reveal interesting trends. Within the Pop genre, White participants appear to choose White artists as the winner more frequently than by chance alone, as we predicted. Black participants appear to choose Black artists as the winner more frequently than chance, but only if there's a single Black artist in a group with two White artists. However, within the Rap genre, White participants tend to choose Black artists as the winner over White artists.  However, these findings are just preliminary trends and are not yet supported with statistical significance.

The purpose of this study as a whole is to determine whether a racial bias exists in music judgment and award distribution. This type of information could apply to academies like the Grammy Awards, in which judging panels are majority White and awards are given mostly to White artists. We cannot make any conclusions at this point in the study, although the data does reveal interesting trends that we will continue to study further over the next few months.

Taylor (Lulu) LaRobardiere/ Advisor: Serge Onyper

Title: Memory Reconsolidation: The Role of Prediction Error in Disrupting Memories of Traumatic Events

The goal of my project was to explore the impacts of intrusive memories and the treatments to diminish their effect. Intrusive memories can occur after the memory of a psychologically traumatic event has been consolidated, a process that stabilizes memory for long-term storage (James et al., 2015). The memories can be subsequently experienced as images or thoughts and, in some cases, lead to a “flashback,” which brings back sights and sounds of the traumatic event. These disrupting sensory memories can hinder everyday life and elicit powerful emotion (Iyadurai et al., 2017).

A process known as reconsolidation, which is the re-stabilizing of a memory after it has been recalled, can strengthen or weaken a memory depending on the circumstance. Previous research has focused on retrieving these memories and interfering with the reconsolidation process to reduce the frequency and intensity of the memories. Several means to disrupt memory during the reconsolidation window have been explored. For example, administration of propranolol, a drug that blocks adrenaline receptors and prevents memories from re-stabilizing, during the reconsolidation window effectively erases the painful memory (Sevenster et al., 2013).

Recent work has explored a completely non-invasive methodology to reduce the intensity of memories, by utilizing a cognitive task (such as a game of Tetris) that competes for cognitive resources necessary to reconsolidate the memory after it’s been destabilized, thus producing a similar outcome to the use of propranolol. James et al. (2015) showed participants a “trauma film” consisting of scenes of injury and death to induce intrusive memories and used Tetris to reduce intrusive memories immediately after the study and up to one year later.

In my study, healthy participants were exposed to a trauma film that generated intrusive memories, which were disrupted upon reactivation the following day in four different ways to investigate the necessity of prediction error in achieving memory disruption. Prediction error refers to an inconsistency between experienced and expected events, and depending on how it’s used, it can either enhance or diminish memories. This research represents the first attempt to examine the role of prediction error using completely non-invasive means within the trauma film paradigm. Participants completed the study online by first viewing the trauma film and then reactivating that memory 24 hours later. We tracked the number of intrusive memories reported for the following 2 days.

While our results showed no differences between the four different ways to disrupt the traumatic memories, playing Tetris after reactivation resulted in a lower count of sleep and behavioral disturbances compared to the non-Tetris groups. Our next step would be to redesign some parts of the study and collect additional data to see if prediction error is indeed necessary for effective memory disruption.