Summer research program offers a gateway to post-grad studies

For many college students, summer is a time to relax and recharge — or, at the very least, to enjoy a slightly less harried schedule.

But for the students taking part in the Advancing Psychological Research with Technology Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Western Kentucky University, summer is a chance to gain invaluable experience working side-by-side with WKU faculty mentors.

This summer, six faculty members from the departments of Psychological Sciences and Psychology are participating in an REU program made possible by a three-year National Science Foundation grant awarded to former Principal Investigator Amber Schroeder, current Principal Investigator Jenni Redifer, and co-Principal Investigator Sharon Mutter. For the eight participating students, the REU program is not only a chance to deepen their research skills, but also a valuable opportunity to gain a competitive advantage when pursuing post-graduate work, including doctoral programs.

“The purpose of the program is to bring in students who have had no real opportunity to work in a laboratory,” said Sharon Mutter, Ph.D., a WKU distinguished professor, M.S. in Psychology coordinator, and co-Principal Investigator for the REU program.

“A lot of these students are coming from smaller schools that don’t really offer opportunities to do research, and the goal is to bring more underrepresented individuals into [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] disciplines.”

The 2017 REU students enjoy a trip to Mammoth Cave.

A closer look at an REU summer

The first hurdle in the REU program is admission. The competitive summer program receives approximately 300 applications from which eight students are selected.

Participating students receive housing, meals and a weekly stipend, allowing them to focus on research and skills development without the added pressure of funding basic living expenses.

“The issue of unpaid internships is a big one—they keep out a lot of students who don’t have the financial resources to do them,” said Kelly Madole, Ph.D., chair of the WKU Department of Psychological Sciences.

With housing, meals and living expenses covered, students participating in the REU program can turn their full attention to assisting participating faculty mentors with research projects. When students apply, they select two faculty members with whom they would like to work. Once they’re selected, REU Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor of Psychology, Jenni Redifer, Ph.D., places students with a faculty member, giving them both a chance to connect and communicate before the program begins.

Some faculty mentors already have projects in the works and will use the REU program as an opportunity to work directly with students and continue research during what would otherwise be a slower time of year. Others will start research projects in the summer, or, in the case of clinical psychology professor and coordinator of the Psy.D. in Applied Psychology, Rick Grieve, Ph.D., give the students a chance to take the lead.

“I spent the first two weeks talking with my two students about muscle dysmorphia literature and what they’re interested in, then we designed two new studies from the ground up,” Grieve said. “The two studies we’re looking at right now are the perceived benefits and barriers for treatment for muscle dysmorphia, and looking at how men with muscle dysmorphia process things — like viewing art — differently from other people.”

Grieve described muscle dysmorphia as a “reverse anorexia.” “People with anorexia look at themselves and they’re extremely thin, but they see themselves as overweight,” he said. “Men with muscle dysmorphia are big and muscular, yet they see themselves as tiny.”

Although the primary focus of the REU program is the research, the program — which runs this year from May 29 to Aug. 4 — also provides other learning opportunities in the form of workshops, presentations and field trips.

“The idea is that the students spend most of their time with their mentor, working on their projects,” Redifer said. “Because they come from a variety of institutions, we want to make sure students leave the program with the pieces they need to conduct a research study on their own, beginning to end. We also offer workshops to help them generally grow as professionals—CVs and resumes, whether they want to pursue an academic career and interviewing skills.”

Students also attend weekly brown bag lunch seminars, which feature a variety of topics. For example, Madole recently presented a closer look at being a professor and what the position entails.

Other topics include maintaining a work-life balance, information that benefits students no matter their future path.

“What’s great about this program is that even if students don’t end up pursuing a path in psychological sciences, they learn some really great skills that can translate to many other fields,” Madole said.

And if students are interested in pursuing graduate studies, REU gives them key foundational knowledge—not to mention a competitive advantage.

“Even if REU students decide they don’t want to become researchers, this gives them a leg up for any graduate program,” Redifer said. “They’re going to have to do some sort of research, even if they don’t want to be a researcher, so the REU program helps them be competitive for graduate school.”

Micaela Lippert, a 2015 REU student, conducts a study with a research participant.

Digging into data and other lessons learned

Among the benefits of the REU program is exposure to a variety of research data collection methodologies. The focus of the program is the advancement of psychological research with technology, and although there are ample opportunities to use technologically enhanced methods such as online data collection, some research projects also provide opportunities to work with more traditional methods.

“Across the different projects, students are using a lot of different methodologies like Amazon Mechanical Turk , or going out to hospitals and administering online questionnaires with paper and pencil,” Mutter said. “Some students are also delivering a musical therapy program with an iPhone. And students are also doing typical data collection in a lab, but using computers to do real-time data collection.”

Associate Professor Aaron Wichman, Ph.D., is one of the REU mentors using Amazon Mechanical Turk and Qualtrics, a web-based research and analysis platform.

Wichman’s two participating students are collecting data online as part of his project, an examination of the perceptions of accountability of negative behavior directed toward “out-group” members.

According to the project summary, “High levels of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment currently mark public discourse in the U.S. A great deal is known about general causes of prejudice toward these and other groups. However, less is known about how actions directed toward members from these groups are evaluated. This project investigates how people’s opinions about behaviors differ, depending on who executes the behavior, and who the target of the behavior is.”

Students working on the project are learning experimental design and how to use Qualtrics and Amazon Mechanical Turk to conduct the experiment.

“I’ve also had my students do a multi-week course on how to use an open source stats program called ‘R,'” Wichman said. “It’s not proprietary, so they can access it wherever they go. A lot of people who deal with big data at Facebook use this, so the students learn something that’s immediately marketable.”

Importantly, students also learn how to write research findings.

“You’re basically writing haiku about research — every character matters,” Wichman said. “What’s the maximum you can convey in that small amount of space?”

When the program concludes Aug. 4, REU students still have work to do. In addition to preparing poster presentations for an end-of-program conference, the students maintain communication with their faculty mentors to arrange presentations at relevant national and international conferences. This ensures that, in addition to hands-on experience in the laboratory, students learn how to construct conference presentations.

Mutter worked with a student last summer who will present at the Psychonomic Society conference in Canada in November.

Matthew Shake, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychological sciences, participated in the REU program for two summers and recently met with a former REU student in San Francisco to present last summer’s work.

“Almost all of the students that we’ve had — around 16 or 17, not including this summer — have gone to present at a conference,” Mutter said. “That’s a pretty good track record.”

Some REU students also work with their faculty mentors to co-author manuscripts. Zoua Lor, a 2016 REU student, is finalizing a manuscript on cognitive strategy use with Redifer, who also previously served as an REU faculty mentor. The manuscript will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal this fall.

REU rewards — How students and faculty benefit

At the end of the program, students leave WKU with heightened skills, bolstered resumes, presentation opportunities and, for many, a better idea of what their future could hold.

“Many students use the information they learn during the REU program to help figure out what they want their paths to be,” Shake said. “My first REU student, Jessica, saw her views evolve over the summer. At the beginning of the summer, she thought she wanted to do research, but at the end, she realized she wanted to focus on the practice side.”

Added Redifer, “A lot of students have taken a research methods class before, but this gives them the opportunity to really take ownership of a project from beginning to end. This is like jumping in the deep end so they can decide if they want to be a researcher or not.”

Because the REU program specifically targets students who otherwise might not have an opportunity to conduct research, the program can also be vital in helping students advance to the next phase of their education.

“At the graduate level in psychology, they want to see that you have research experience to gain entry in a doctoral program, no matter the field,” Shake said. “With this REU grant, we’re really targeting students with limited research opportunities. These are the students who are very bright, but the vast majority had little or no research experience, which was a barrier to pursuing doctoral study.”

While the REU program is demanding for faculty mentors, participation in the summer session delivers benefits, as well.

“I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to work with some really good people, and it’s always a pleasure to watch them grow in terms of becoming more familiar and more comfortable with research,” Grieve said. “We always have an ulterior motive — I’d love to have them come here and go to grad school. But seeing them successful and knowing that I was able to contribute to some of that success, that’s what drives me. It’s very, very rewarding.”

Mutter sees several pluses, too. “We get a great bunch of students coming in, so I’d say for the faculty, that’s probably the biggest perk,” she said. “These students aren’t from our university, so the training that we’re providing goes back to other universities. A good many of these students go on to graduate school, and we’re making a significant contribution to the field by doing this.”