Tuesday, October 14, 2014 - 16:30

Assumption Students Collaborate with Psychology Faculty on Research

Four Assumption College students recently partnered with faculty on important psychological research in the areas of developmental communications, autism and sensory and cognitive processing. Through hands-on experience the students discovered how they can make a difference in the field of psychology.

Anna doCurral ’17 of Milford, Mass.; Nicole Hebert ’16 of Weymouth, Mass.; Andrew Lampi ’16 of Westborough, Mass.; and Katherine Schmidt ’15 of Windham, N.H., all took part in Assumption’s summer 2014 psychology research program. They applied what they learned in the classroom and through one-on-one mentoring to real world situations/studies, producing invaluable results and helping prepare them for future endeavors. The students will have the opportunity to present their findings at the College’s annual Undergraduate Research Symposium in the spring.

“Assumption students are engaged in all aspects of the research process, including the chance to present not only on campus but also at prestigious psychology conferences across the United States,” said Paula Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., professor of psychology and chair of the department at Assumption College. “A number of our students have also had the opportunity to become a co-author on a journal publication.”

This focus on practical and collaborative research is an important part of an Assumption College education in psychology. Not only do the students get to perform real fieldwork, they are also encouraged to share their efforts with the larger psychology community.

Nicole Hebert ’16, a psychology major from Weymouth, Mass.; faculty sponsor: Maria Kalpidou, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Assumption College

Hebert’s research project, which is ongoing into the 2014-2015 academic year, studies how parental language input affects the development of communication skills in one year-old infants. She analyzed video-taped interactions of parents and their child during free-play and then coded and categorized the language of all family members to document various elements. Herbert’s work took note of things like the number of words and utterances, and their content, (for the parents) and the vocalizations and communication gestures of the infants. The project also focused on differences in language input between mothers and fathers.

“I was able to work alongside and be mentored by psychology faculty where I observed experiments, collected and analyzed data, and provided my own input,” said Hebert, who is interested in pursuing graduate studies in speech and communications disorders. “My research experience at Assumption has motivated me to further my education and will help advance my career in the field of psychology.”

Hebert and Professor Kalpidou’s results will be submitted to the Biennial Conference of the Society for Research in Child Development, which will take place in March 2015 in Philadelphia.

Anna doCurral ’17 of Milford, Mass.; faculty sponsors: Associate Professor of Psychology Fang Zhang, Ph.D., and Assistant Professor of Psychology Maria Parmley, Ph.D.

doCurral worked on several projects over the course of the summer.  For the first three weeks she worked on skin conductance with Professors Zhang and Parmley on processing a large set of skin conductance data, compiled over the last two semesters from a serenity induction project. Her work involved analyzing literature on skin conductance measures, learning about data processing in Acknowledge (the skin conductance software), and using the data to calculate average skin conductance levels.

“It wasn’t until I began my summer research at Assumption College that I truly realized the immensity of the field of psychology,” said doCurral. “It is one thing to read about the research process in textbooks and literature, but like many other things in life, you cannot possibly understand the process fully until you are immersed in it. I learned not only about the countless hours that go into conducting an experiment, but also about the tedious process of pilot-testing. I learned that failures and mishaps are an important part of the research process, and that the best experiments are those that have been revised, altered or adjusted.”

doCurral is working on a project that examines the cognitive, emotional and interpersonal processes associated with serenity. Professors Zhang and Parmley hypothesize that experience of serenity probably is associated with a shift in modes of sensory and cognitive processing—from top-down processing, which is directive, interpretative and conceptually-driven; to bottom-up processing, which is non-directive, concrete, and data-driven. doCurral is testing this hypothesis through a series of experiments. She is involved in the project’s design phase as well as the actual experimentation and her activities include analyzing literature, generating experimental ideas, finding research stimuli, and using “E-prime” software to design experiments.

In the next phase, doCurral will help carry out a series of pilot tests to test various procedures to induce serenity (in contrast to happiness or negative emotions) and various cognitive experiments. She is also helping to write the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Institutional Review Board (IRB) application to prepare for data collection during fall 2014.

Katherine Schmidt ’15, an honors student and double major in psychology and Human Services and Rehabilitation Studies from Windham, N.H.; faculty sponsor: Paula Fitzpatrick, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Assumption College

Schmidt’s research was funded by an Honors Summer Fellowship to start a project for her honors thesis, “Perceiving Movement Synchronization Deficits in Autism.” The project is an outgrowth of National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded research that investigates social coordination in children with autism.

"The Honors Research Fellowship allowed for many different academic developments and realizations,” said Schmidt. “This opportunity allowed for me to not only learn from Professor Fitzpatrick, but to also learn about how independent I was able to become while creating and conducting my experiment. Through this fellowship I was able to create a more intricate honors thesis experiment. This was a wonderful opportunity to expand my knowledge and experience in the field of psychology.”

Professor Fitzpatrick’s recent research with collaborators at the College of the Holy Cross, University of Cincinnati, Children's Hospital Cincinnati, and University of Massachusetts Medical School Psychiatry Department (Fitzpatrick et al., 2013) suggests that part of the difficulties children with autism have in social interaction may be due to the fact that children and adolescents with autism demonstrate different patterns of coordinating their body movements with others when completing social tasks, or social motor coordination. These differences in social motor coordination have been found to be associated with clinical and social cognitive measures of social skill.

Other researchers have found that patterns of biological motion can be used to perceive actions, emotions, and personality characteristics of others. A question remains, however, whether individuals are able to detect social problems based on biological motion. Schmidt’s thesis will test whether participants who watch videos of interactions of individuals with and without autism will be able to detect differences of synchronization in biological movement and identify which children they believe have autism. In addition, the thesis will explore whether the ability to detect the proposed difference in synchronization of biological motion depends upon the severity of the diagnosis of autism. If it is found that individuals have the ability to perceive biological motion and detect a diagnosis of autism, this could lead to the development of social motor assessments as a potential measure of early detection of autism in children and add to the field of diagnostics of those with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

Over the summer, Schmidt created the experimental stimuli, wrote the IRB application, collected data, and worked on data entry and initial analysis.

Andrew Lampi ’16, an honors student and psychology major from Westborough, Mass.; faculty sponsor: Professor Paula Fitzpatrick

Lampi’s research was funded by an Assumption College Psychology Department research fellowship for his honors thesis “Exploring Communication Patterns in Children with Autism.” He worked on transcribing videos from the experimental sessions of an NIH-funded project investigating social coordination in children with autism. In his research, Lampi explored how the patterns of communication of children with and without autism relate to social motor coordination measures, and compared the communication styles of those with and without autism. This research adds to the understanding of the role of communication dynamics in fostering social exchanges.

“It was a gratifying experience to conduct research as part of the fellowship program. Being able to work with Dr. Fitzpatrick on her research on autism helped me determine a research question for my honor’s thesis,” said Lampi. “Since autism is a pertinent topic to my personal life as well as to my future professional life, an opportunity like this was extraordinary.

“Learning how to do real-world psychological research at such an early point in my career will undoubtedly help me with my plans to continue this kind of work in graduate school and beyond,” Lampi added, “and it will serve as a foundation for a lifetime of psychological work.”

Kimberly Dunbar, Director of Public Affairs, Assumption College
ke.dunbar@assumption.edu @AssumptionNews