All posts by samperry97

2 Weeks In: Data, Dot Probes, and Development

For the past few weeks, and for the rest of the summer, I have assisted in the Tulane Child and Family lab. Conveniently located on Tulane’s campus, in Percival Stern Hall, I am surrounded by familiarity. As a result, at first I thought my work this summer would just be a continuation of my work in this lab this past semester. However, I am quickly finding that this is not the case. Hopefully this blog post sheds some light on my new experiences, relationships, and insights.

Tulane’s Child and Family lab mainly examines how experiencing trauma at a young age affects a child’s development. With preschool-aged children and their mothers as the participants of the study, my lab also investigates how maternal factors can be a buffer for child maladjustment. momchild-300x300The graduate students of the lab interview and administer tests and games to the children and their mothers, and then they team up with the undergraduate students (such as me) to analyze and report on the information. In fact, a paper written by my Principal Investigator (P.I.) and a graduate student in the lab was just accepted for publication. It details their findings on biosynchrony, which is the idea that prenatal factors, such as the amount of activation of the stress response system, in the mother can be passed down biologically to her children. The people in this lab constantly find new ways to interpret and analyze the data they collect in order to prove a new finding.

While I did not contribute to the research paper I just mentioned, I help with many other tasks in the lab. Thus far, I have not played a very versatile role in the lab, as I have been mostly coding, exporting and entering data. I have transcribed a few interviews of the mothers, which is important so that we can later code the content of the interviews. Additionally, I have entered a lot of data from cognitive tests we administer to the kids, interviews of the mothers, and self-reported surveys of the mothers. Later, someone will go in and analyze this further using statistics so that we can apply the data to a research question. Lastly, I have been exporting data from a dot-probe task that we do with the kids, which is a test of selective attention when presented with threatening stimuli. Often, the dot-probe paradigm is used to assess conditions of people with anxiety disorders, and we are looking at the data we find in correlation with the amount of trauma the children have experienced. Essentially, the participants will stare at a plus in the middle of a screen and then two different faces will pop up (they can be either happy, neutral, or threatening/angry) and stay on the screen for a predetermined amount of time. After the faces disappear, a dot appears on the screen, which the participants are supposed to locate as quickly as they can:

Figure1

This data, while complex, is quite interesting and can illuminate a lot about the state of a participant. A graduate student had to train me on how to properly export the data, but it was not difficult to pick up on. However, we are finding some issues with the data, such as the fact that the length of a trial of the dot-probe can sometimes outlast the general attention span of a child. Either way, exporting the data has been fascinating, and I will hopefully be teaming up with one of the graduate students to create a poster and presentation on the findings of the dot-probe data.

In the near future, I am scheduled to go help recruit participants. These trips, which take place at the local HeadStart preschools, aim to recruit as many moms and children as possible for our study, as well as expose our lab’s name to the community so that we can hopefully expand the number of people who participate in our study. As a research lab, everyone is very grateful to the schools that let us come and recruit people.

Because it is summer, not many people from the lab are currently here, other than a few undergrads and the usual number of grad students (4). As a result, I am forming closer relationships with everyone in the lab because we are working a lot together and in such close quarters. Furthermore, I have gotten to see a more in-depth look at the process of getting a Ph.D., and all the work it takes. This experience has also confirmed for me that I do not want to go into research as a career. While I enjoy it now, I do not think that I could do it for many years to come. It has been, and will continue to be, an invaluable experience; I love my lab, the people in it, and the work we do, but as a career path, it is not for me.

Initially, I wanted to join a research lab to see if research was for me as a long-term path, but now my goals have shifted in that I am enjoying delving deeper into a field about which I am passionate. I hope to become a medical doctor someday, and it is paramount that I see and experience the origin of the information I will be using to treat patients. For anyone reading this who wants to start doing research at Tulane, the best piece of advice I can offer you is to start early. I was in a Neuroscience research lab for a semester during freshman year, and then switched to Psychology midway through my sophomore year. Because I am a Neuroscience and Psychology double major, I started my search for a lab the second time by looking up Tulane faculty on the Neuroscience and Psychology department websites. I also talked to professors I knew in those departments, and a few of them recommended that I talk to Dr. Gray (whose lab I am in now). I then emailed all the professors whose research interested me, and I got a few replies. I applied to multiple labs, and Dr. Gray’s lab was the first I interviewed with. They invited me to work in their lab pretty immediately, and I accepted. I feel very grateful for the opportunity to get to work in this lab, especially because the work we are doing, especially the subject matter, aligns with my passions and future career goals. So, make sure you find a lab you find interesting; it will make all the difference.

Clearly, I am interested in the work this lab is doing, or I would not have stayed over the summer to work in it. As for the rest of the summer, I hope to be able to expand my role in this lab even further and get as involved as I can. I love working on a diversity of tasks, and I look forward to finding creative ways to participate in the work we are doing.

 

Child Development: Nature dancing with nurture over time

A 2012 Pediatrics article refers to the process of child development as “nature dancing with nurture over time.” This idea, the push and pull relationship of environment and biology, has fascinated me ever since I first learned about genetics. This summer, I will be Newcomb Scholarsable to continue examining the impact of both nature and nurture in the research lab.

My name is Samantha Perry, and I am double majoring in Neuroscience and Psychology. I am a northern California native, but have found a second home in New Orleans in its rich culture of food, music, people and festivals. In addition to working as a research assistant in a clinical psychology research lab on campus, I work at the Tulane Academic Success Center as a tutor; am a member of Newcomb Scholars, as well as the sorority, Phi Mu; and will start volunteering at the Tulane Parenting Education Program, a clinic that works with young maltreated children and families involved with the department of children and family services, in the fall.

This summer, I will be working in Dr. Gray’s clinical psychology lab (the Tulane Child and Family Lab) at Tulane University, investigating how exposure to trauma at a young age affects a child’s development. This includes examining the factors that protect a child against maladjustment, such as the resilience and the reflectiveness of the mother in the face of adversity. The themes of this research correspond to the work I do as a Newcomb Scholar through expanding my interdisciplinary learning and improving my leadership skills, as well as my future goals as a child psychiatrist. I have worked in Dr. Gray’s lab this past semester, and plan on continuing to do so throughout the rest of my college career.

tulane child and family lab picture

In the application for the Newcomb College Institute grant, we were asked to provide learning objectives for our summer involvement. At first, this was difficult for me because I had been doing this research already for a semester; what more did I have to learn? However, after sitting down and forcing myself to think about what I wanted to get out of doing over 200 hours of research this summer, I realized that getting to assist with this lab on a more in-depth scale would teach me invaluable skills. I became more and more excited about the prospects of enhancing my professional development. First of all, through this research, I would like to improve my interviewing skills. I have only been on the interviewing side once before, and I think that knowing how to interview someone will help me to become a better interviewee. Secondly, I want to learn the process of speaking with at-risk families and children about their experiences. If I am going to be working with families who have experienced trauma for the rest of my life, as I plan to do, I want to get a head start on discussing sensitive material with at-risk children and their parents. Thirdly, I want to become more familiar with how to conduct research, which will be an invaluable skill I can utilize in writing my Honors and Master’s theses. Similarly, I want to learn how to analyze data more effectively, whether it be coded data from interviews or self-reported surveys, or physiological data from electrodes. Additionally, I hope to gain more practice in statistical analysis, which will help me in my own research. Finally, I hope to expand my perspective on the social climate of New Orleans. Through listening to the stories of the participants, I will be exposed to behavioral challenges, and their socioeconomic and cultural roots.

The Newcomb Scholars program and the Newcomb College Institute aim to cultivate compassionate and strong women leaders. Overall, this research involves interviewing mothers and their children, facilitating cognitive tests for the children, and measuring physiological responses of the participants throughout the process. My role includes recruiting mothers for the study; analyzing interviews, cognitive tests and physiological data; and writing literature reviews. To appeal to mothers to participate, I need to be outgoing, confident, compassionate and emotionally available, all leadership skills fostered by the Newcomb Scholars program. During part of the process, we speak to mothers about how they cope with their own experiences of trauma, how they help their child cope, and how their relationship with their child impacts their perspective on their child’s adjustment to society. We can then draw conclusions about traumatic experiences on a child’s development, as well as how caregiver factors buffer the impacts of trauma. The results are far-reaching: they can influence policy-making, education, parenting strategies, medical care, and more. In this way, Dr. Gray’s research uses an interdisciplinary approach similar to that of the Newcomb Scholars program.

These women’s coping mechanisms highlight their resilience in the face of adversity. Their stories empower me to make a difference in their world. Through transcribing interviews, I see the impact of mothers on their children’s lives. This is the most basic form of leadership—leading your children into the world, and helping them grow into happy and well-adjusted adults.

Because I am assisting on research, I am not doing much to prepare for it, other than moving my furniture and belongings into my house for the summer. I will also be spending two relaxing weeks at home before I return to New Orleans and jump back in to the swing of things. The lab has a meeting the day I return, and I will know more about the specific goals of the summer research. During the spring semester, I would work in the lab around 6-8 hours per week; now, I am increasing that to around 20 hours per week, which will be a huge shift. As a result, I will get to work on projects other than transcribing interviews and data entry, such as recruiting moms for the study, literature reviews, and more. Overall, I look forward to the opportunity to delve deeper into this research, especially with my newfound level of involvement.  Through this research, I hope to participate in a project that is helping to bring new perspectives to the ever-growing field of early childhood development. I hope to use this grant to increase my depth of understanding and involvement in a subject about which I am passionate and hope to make my life’s work.