Exciting news!  The Athletes and Stress Study has officially received approval from the Brandeis institutional review board! Or course, we received this approval two days after my summer internship ended… but on the bright side I have been offered to continue working with this lab next summer so I will be able to be involved with the data collection and analysis of the project after all! I will be studying abroad in Paris throughout this coming academic year, but as this is a long-term study there will still be plenty to do next summer. It will be exciting to see the data collected and progress made by my return.

Some timing did work out in my favor: on my last day in lab my supervisor approved the survey I developed for measuring critical body talk! This survey will be the backbone of my independent focus, and it will be administered as part of the larger study. I will begin analyzing its results next summer.

Although I originally thought we would begin running the study this summer, it turned out to be fortunate to enter this lab in the formative stage of the project. I was able to incorporate my research interest into the larger work, and I had time to explore how self-criticism may be related to other important areas like body esteem, perceived stress, the physical stress response, competitiveness, activity level, and body objectification. Furthermore, if all goes well, I may be able to integrate my work this summer into a future senior thesis. That remains yet to be determined, but it would be a productive way to utilize any findings that the critical body talk survey yields.

This summer gave me firsthand experience of what it could be like to be a psychological researcher. I learned that health psychology is an ever-growing field, and it seems to be on the cusp of exciting new research with important implications for mental and physical well being. The WOW program is an excellent way for students to gain insight into the future careers they may want to pursue. My WOW experience leaned in a slightly different direction: I got a glimpse of what it would be like to be in graduate school for psychology. Since this would be the next step in my progress to a career in this field, I’m so grateful to have experienced what this next step could be like! From what I observed working with a team of graduate students to set up this study, and talking with them about their past experiences and present research involvements,  I think I would really enjoy psych grad school! Working in a lab like this is a great opportunity to balance collaborative work with a team and independent work on personal projects. In my experience this summer, I saw a group of passionate and interested researchers all doing important work on their own, and then coming together to combine their interests and expertise to create a larger, multifaceted, and cohesive project. I like the idea of working with such a team in my future research because by working together you can cover one research area from many different angles, and you can discover interactions you may have never thought of on your own.

If another Brandeis undergrad was interested in doing work with this particular lab, I would say it is important to be able to work on your own, stay on top of things, and to not be shy to ask for help. I had to create my own work schedule between lab meetings. I knew the end goal of my work and sometimes I had to figure out how to fill in the middle. Through reaching out to the others on the team, I found guidance and support. It is important to join a lab that interests you. It is also helpful to come into the lab being informed and interested in the project, and having your own related but individual interests. When I spoke up about my interests and how I wanted to be involved, the team was happy to incorporate me, and they helped me narrow and define what I want to research.

The critical reading, organization, and self-initiative skills I fostered this summer will serve me well in all my future academic work. Through working with this team, I made relationships with bright minds in the psychology field. These individuals are doing research on such interesting areas, and I look forward to seeing how their work continues in the future! I’m happy to have experienced being part of this community at Brandeis, and I feel inspired to continue my work in psychology research.


A Healthy Half

Wet lab centrifuge and hood, i.e. where they handle the blood and saliva we will collect
Wet lab centrifuge and hood, i.e. where they handle the blood and saliva we will collect
Brandeis Health Psych Lab! Where the magic happens. In the bottom floor of Brown.
Brandeis Health Psych Lab! Where the magic happens. In the bottom floor of Brown.

I’m a little more than halfway done with my summer of Health Psychology, and it is flying by! The Athletes and Stress study is coming along steadily. Currently we are mapping out the different portions of the study, deciding which survey or sample goes at what time, which samples we need to collect on the in-lab study day, and which can be reserved for the take-home portion. It is amazing to see the precision this process requires and the variety of factors that must be considered. For example, if we have participants take a survey about the social support they receive on a daily basis, and this survey makes them realize they are not receiving as much support as they would like, it can trigger feelings of loneliness. This negative affect can influence how participants respond on following surveys, or how they perceive their experience during the in-lab stress test. It is essential for us to eliminate this form of bias as much as possible.

I am feeling more incorporated in the research team and confident in my involvement. I can tell that I am progressing in the lab as I realize I have a voice in the project and can have relevant input. I am also amassing quite a large file on my computer of literature on the subjects we are studying. Here is an example of the type of studies I am analyzing. Luckily, during an internship I held last year at the Brandies Women’s Research Center, I learned how to use EndNote citation software. This has been so helpful in keeping my research organized! The organizational skills I’m fostering this summer will be extremely helpful in my future coursework.

Additionally, my critical reading skills are improving. Originally, I assumed that if the articles I read made it to publication (the psychology student’s dream) they must be relevant to my interests and study. However, I’m learning to be more careful with my scrutiny. Looking at researchers’ motivation and tone, how they collect their data and where the article is published reveals another level of information. Their findings may be true, but for what population or from what angle are they relevant?  Perhaps there is a missing piece of information, or other psychological phenomena taking place that can explain the found association. Between these lines is where I need to look to find the really interesting information that can guide future research.

This is how I am trying to approach the literature review for my independent focus. I’ve decided that I want to examine why and how people communicate about their bodies, how these social interactions translate into internalized body-related attitudes and behaviors, and the larger effects these attitudes and behaviors may have on mental and physical well-being. More specifically, I am looking at the role of “fat talk” communication (a term coined by Harvard Anthropologist, Mimi Nichter), what motivates this kind of discourse and what results it may have. What strikes me most about my research is the volume of work that has been done and is being done. It feels like searching through Mary Poppins’ carpet bag – it just never ends and the findings are stunning! There are always more papers to read, or new angles to examine, or new measures to critique. It is incredible to realize the volume of knowledge that is being generated by researchers around the world, but it is important not to get bogged down or overwhelmed by all the information.

I’m most proud of my personal initiative and organization. I have a lot of freedom with the work that I do – which is both a luxury and a difficulty. I have a much easier time when someone tells me what to research, or when, where, and how to do things. I’ve also found satisfaction doing the more concrete tasks, like working on the online diary, learning to use equipment and organizing the study. During a meeting with my advisor in the lab I was talking to her about all the possible directions my project on “fat talk” could go, and she stumped me with the simplest question. “Why do you want to research this? What interests YOU?” My answer was stuck somewhere between “everything” and “I don’t know.” This is the problem I face when the options are so broad! I’m trying to let these simple questions guide my research and keep bringing me back to the purpose of research – finding interesting questions and important answers.


First Week (back) in ParaDEIS

As a WOW fellow I am so happy to be joining a group of engaged, motivated and adventurous students. While this year’s WOW fellows span the globe from India to LA, South Africa to Vietnam, I have begun my summer work in more familiar ground: Waltham, Massachusetts. I am working in the Laboratory for Biological Health Psychology right here at Brandeis University. Though my surroundings are familiar, my experience thus far feels new and exciting. Waltham as a city has much more to offer than I realized: local cuisine (Lizzy’s Ice Cream? In a Pickle?!), a farmers market en plein air,  a beautiful bike path, an outstanding thrift shop, and there’s still more to find! I am living independently and looking forward to this opportunity to expand my self-reliance and personal initiative.

Health psychology is a fascinating new field, and I am particularly interested in it as I intend to pursue a career that promotes both psychological and physiological wellness. The Laboratory for Biological Health Psychology investigates how psychosocial states – such as anxiety, depression, acute stress and chronic stress – can affect our health, and the intracellular pathways that link these mental states to physical outcomes. I became interested in this lab while taking Health Psychology at Brandeis. I expressed my interest to my TA, and she put me in contact with the professor in charge. I began attending lab meetings, and was offered a position as a summer research assistant.

As a research assistant in this lab I am primarily working on a new, upcoming study known as Athletes and Stress. The lab team consists of one head professor, several Ph.D. and masters students, myself, and one other undergraduate research assistant. This team is inspiring, diverse, friendly, helpful and funny, and it is an enjoyable environment to work in. Athletes and Stress is a large and long-term project looking at differences in the emotional and biological stress response in student athletes, active non-athletes, and minimally active. The purpose of this study is to examine the extent to which these three groups differ in their stress responses, and determine the potential contributing factors for these group differences.

My lab responsibilities are varied and will change over the course of the summer. While we await final project approval from the Institutional Review Board, I am being trained in the lab protocol and procedure, learning about equipment use, helping to set up and format the two-week take-home diary portion of the study, and doing literature search and review. Next week I will also be joining a subgroup within Athletes and Stress. This group of graduate students is working on writing papers from different angles relevant to the study. I will be helping find sources for their papers, peer-edit their work, and engage in frequent group discussions.

I will be concentrating on the diary portion of Athletes and Stress as I am being allowed to do an independent focus on data collected in the diary. For this independent portion I am doing lots of literature review.  If you’re interested in learning a bit more about how stress affects our health and the types of research being done in this area, check out this fantastic documentary on the work of Robert Sapolsky. Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist and professor at Stanford University, and a leading researcher in this field.

This summer I am looking forward to learning the many steps that go into conceptualizing, creating, and conducting a psychological study. Since I am joining in its preliminary stages, I have the chance to see how a research question is developed into a full-fledged study.  I hope to learn what sort of complications psychological researchers face and how we can overcome these obstacles. I also hope to learn what aspects of research ignite my interest and my personal challenges and strengths. I think this will be a summer of learning and growth, and I am excited to have begun!

– Clara Gray ’15