PBS Alumni on the Benefits of Undergraduate Research Experience
All motivated psychology and neuroscience majors can benefit from working in a research lab. Below are the stories of alumni who participated in psychology or neuroscience research as undergraduates.
Notice the diversity of careers!
Andrea Hussong, BA'91, Professor of Psychology: Working through college
For Andrea Hussong, BA'91, participating in activities outside of the classroom was necessary to both put herself through college and be more involved in the school and community.
Hussong had various positions throughout her college career. She ran a before school program for Bloomington schools and worked as a house monitor for BlairHouse, a halfway house for adults with severe mental illnesses. She also volunteered at a rape crisis center and was a co-founding member of the IU branch of the National Organization of Women. In the department, Hussong worked with Peter Finn's lab group and spent a summer with David Pisoni's group.
"I loved service work, but once I discovered research I was hooked," she said. "I had incredible autonomy and responsibility in many of these positions, and I am grateful beyond measure to those who trusted me to make mistakes and fix them, fueling my love for the work."
Today, Hussong is a professor of psychology at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She has both a master's degree and PhD from Arizona State University. She said she is indebted to both Finn and several graduate students for helping her realize that she wanted to go to graduate school.
"I knew no one who had gone," she said. "This was just new to me and they made it both possible and vivid."
Holly Mull, BA'91, Counseling Psychologist: Pursue excellence
Holly graduated from Indiana University with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1991. She then earned Master of Science in Counseling Psychology at University of Kansas and was accepted by the Arizona State University doctoral program. When we interviewed Holly in 2001, she was completing a one-year fulltime internship required for counseling psychologists. Holly's internship is at Counseling and Psychological Services (CaPS) at the Indiana University Health Center in Bloomington.
What does a counseling psychologist at a university clinic do? Holly works with students who come to CaPS for services. She conducts biopsychosocial intake assessments, conducts individual, group, and couples psychotherapy, and crisis assessment and intervention. She also refers students to appropriate on- and off-campus services. As a counseling psychologist on a university campus Holly engages in outreach and consultation to other offices and programs on campus such as the Commission on Multicultural Understanding, Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Trans-gender Student Support Services, and the Student Academic Center. As an intern, Holly supervises doctoral students, does case file management, and attends seminars on current issues in the field. After she completes her internship Holly anticipates counseling clients, preferably in a multidisciplinary setting. She also hopes to provide supervision to trainees, teach a counseling psychology course now and then, and be active in counseling process research.
What undergraduate experiences helped Holly prepare for a career? She says that her psychology courses (including, to her great surprise, the course in motivation) were most helpful in preparing her for her career. She also learned a lot from her cultural studies courses (she chose African American Studies) and her religious studies courses. Holly says that she also benefited from a research assistantship with Dr. Bates, volunteering for the Listening Line, and from a Spring Break trip with Habitat for Humanity.
Holly's advice for undergraduates planning their careers: "First, start backwards: What kinds of activities/settings/people/locations do you want to avoid? Second, interview people who are doing things you think you might like to do. Check out your assumptions and get feedback. IU's Career Development Center is an excellent resource! Explore ALL of the various types of jobs in the field and different avenues, departments, and degrees that could get you there. If you are thinking about doing counseling avoid getting hung-up on the status hierarchy of psychology degrees--instead, simply pursue excellence and humble confidence."
Krista Mullinex, BA'93, School Psychologist: Supporting children, parents and teachers
Krista graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology in 1993. She also majored in French and recently earned her Educational Specialist's Degree (or EDS) in school psychology, which is equivalent to one year past a master's degree. When we interviewed Krista in 2001, she was working as a school psychologist at Lawrence Township Schools in Indianapolis.
Krista works with children who vary in age from elementary school through middle school. Testing is a large part of Krista's job; she tests the children who are referred to her by teachers and/or parents, and then the test scores are used to determine eligibility for special education for that child. She also consults with teachers and parents, attends case conferences, and writes reports of all the testing. She is assigned to two elementary schools and one middle school, and usually divides her time equally between the three. She also previously worked for a school in Shelbyville before taking the Lawrence Township job.
What interested Krista in psychology? She thought it would be a good start toward helping people and was an interest in college, so she decided to major in it. During her IU years, she had an excellent research assistantship with Dr. Jack Bates, where her interviewing and research skills were developed. That helps her a great deal in her current job, as do the abnormal psychology classes she took as an undergraduate.
What is her advice for psychology undergraduates? "Take some introductory classes and see how well you like psychology; also possibly see if you can sit in on some upper level classes, such as abnormal psychology. Also, if students are still unsure if they want to study psychology, they should pick up some psychology academic journals and see if they find anything that interests them there."
Amy Bradley, BS'95, Computer Consultant: Using a psychology degree in business
Amy graduated from Indiana University in May 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Mathematics, also minoring in German. When we interviewed her in 2001, she was working as a computer consultant for Cambridge Technology Partners in Chicago, IL.
Amy mostly works with other programmers and consultants and manages projects, codes for computer programming, and resolves issues in her department. She plans projects, makes sure they come in on time, and that they are done correctly. Amy also plans team-building exercises and interacts with many types of people. She hopes to continue in her current position and then retire. She chose her profession during the interview process her senior year at IU.
Why major in Psychology? For Amy, it was an accident! She did very well in an introductory psychology class that she took, and a professor asked her to work in his lab. She became interested in it after that experience, and decided to major in it. In the lab, she analyzed data and conducted statistical tests, which parallels the work she is doing now. Thus, Amy uses her psychology degree very much in her job; there is a lot of personal interaction and team building, and this requires social skills and knowledge of behavior.
What advice does Amy have for undergraduates? "My Psychology degree helped me a lot as a preparation tool for my current job. I would recommend that you focus on a specific area of psychology, one that is in keeping with your career goals and possibly get a strong additional degree also; that will be a big help when you're trying to find a job."
Rebecca O'Bryan, BS'01, Medical Doctor: Family inspiration
Because her sister is autistic, Rebecca O'Bryan was always fascinated with the inner workings of the mind. She was especially interested in language development.
"Once I took my first Intro to Psychology course, I knew this would be a good major for me in order to pursue my interests," she said.
When she started working toward her psychology degree, she had the opportunity to work both as a lab manager and an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant.
"I greatly enjoyed the chance to do something other than go to class," she said. "I liked working in different labs and classrooms and seeing the application of the knowledge I was obtaining."
After graduating summa cum laude with an honors degree in psychology and a minor in biology, O'Bryan worked as a research assistant for the DeVault Otologic Research Center at Riley Hospital before beginning medical school in 2004.
O'Bryan is currently a physician pursuing residency in physical medicine and rehabilitation. She's interested in the inner workings of the mind and how trauma, stroke, and genetic factors play a part in personality, mental illness, and ability to function. Participating in activities outside of her academic life as an undergraduate helped her get to this point.
"I think it's very important to have something else you understand and enjoy that is not work-related," she said. "It makes you better at whatever it is you ultimately decide to do. It makes you more well-rounded in terms of taking care of patients working with others, or working with clients - whatever business you decide to pursue."
Lisa Spalding, BA'01, Psychometrician: She writes the tests
Lisa Spalding graduated in August 2001 with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. When we interviewed her in 2001, she had been accepted to graduate school at the University of Minnesota and planned toearn her PhD in Psychometrics.
Lisa isn't sure about the exact career she will enter when she completes graduate school but indicated that there are many possibilities, including both research/academic and applied careers. Research in psychometrics related to development, measurement, assessment of psychological tests. Applied careers are quite varied, but students of this program have gone on to work for state-wide or city-wide testing agencies, helping to develop better tests or to improve on existing tests (like ISTEP or CAT). Salaries for this field are also varied, but with the Bush administration's plan to test all grade school and high school students on basic skills, salaries in applied careers are likely to be quite high in the next few years.
Lisa was initially attracted to the psychology major because she wanted to do counseling in some form and thought a psychology major would fit well with that goal. Along with her psychology major, Lisa also completed a minor in Spanish. She says that what helped her prepare for her career included taking various classes in psychology to figure out what her specific interests were in the field. Lab courses, and a job in Dr. Sherman's Smoking Lab were also helpful in gaining understanding of all the work that goes into developing and carrying out studies and writing up the results.
What advice does Lisa have for undergraduates? Take a variety of courses within psychology, as well as related fields (sociology, criminal justice, cognitive science, etc.) to help narrow down your interests. Get experience working in labs, whether it's for credit or for money to get an idea of how psychological research works--this will help tremendously if you plan to go to graduate school.
Sara Moellers Kleinschmidt, BS'03, PhD Candidate in Neuroscience and Cell Biology: Thinking critically
Sara Moellers Kleinschmidt, a 2003 graduate, is now in Chicago pursuing a Ph.D. in neuroscience and cell biology at Northwestern University. Next she plans to go into residency to pursue a career in academic medicine.
As an undergraduate, Kleinschmidt enjoyed doing research in Tom Busey's lab. The work led her to decide to pursue a PhD and an MD.
"The skills I've learned from my mentors for thinking critically about science, reading articles and asking interesting questions are essential to any job in academia," she said.
"It is also incredibly generous of them that, five years after graduation, I can still rely on them for tangible support in the form of things like letters of recommendation."
Kleinschmidt was an assistant instructor for classes in both physics and chemistry during her undergraduate career. Before moving to Chicago, she taught high school with Teach for America.
Dan Shapiro, BS'05, PhD Candidate in Clinical Psychology: Smaller communities in a larger institution
Dan Shapiro, a current student in the clinical psychology Ph.D. program at Emory University in Atlanta, attributes some of his success to his participation in various activities during college.
"My myriad experiences really developed the way I think about the world and pointed me toward what I hope will be my career," he said.
Shapiro not only worked in two different labs, but also participated in the IU Campus Band, Collins LLC Community, and student government, among other activities. In addition to graduating summa cum laude with an honors degree in psychology, he also earned a certificate in Jewish Studies and minors in both history and philosophy.
"All these activities were great ways to make a large university into smaller communities," he said. "I liked being involved in IU at multiple levels and being able to cross paths with such a diverse group of students."
And he found that diversity not only across the campus, but also within his main area of study. The diverse professionals in Psychological and Brain Sciences gave him the chance to see different applications in the field of psychology.
"The diversity of opinions and backgrounds one is introduced to at a large university like IU is pretty eye-opening," he said. "I had the opportunity to see what psychologists do and participate in research labs."
Shapiro is now in his second year as a doctoral student. His research interests include cognition in schizophrenia and developmental precursors of serious mental illness.
Jill Villarreal, PhD'06, Pet Welfare Scientist: 'I leave work feeling proud'
Jill Villarreal, PhD'06, is using her experience in animal behavior to help improve the lives of pets.
At IU, Jill gained a broad education in animal behavior. She enjoyed courses and learning experiences offered within the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, as well as through the Departments of Biology, Anthropology, History and Philosophy of Science, and the Medical Sciences Program. She served on the Developmental Training Grant and was active in the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior.
Comparative physiologist Henry Prange and developmental neuroscientist Dale Sengelaub co-mentored Villarreal's dissertation. Her research addressed how environmental factors influence the morphological, physiological, and behavioral development of rats.
After graduation, Villarreal continued her interest in understanding the complex relationship between environment and developmental processes and accepted a position as an Animal Behavior Scientist with Nestle Purina, Research & Development. This was an opportunity to extend her area of work and get involved in non-invasive animal welfare research involving cats and dogs.
At Nestle Purina, Villarreal designs and implements lifespan socialization and enrichment programs, conducts continuous improvement in pet welfare science, and works with nutritionists, food scientists, flavor scientists, and veterinarians to better understand pet behavior.
Villarreal said she is pleased to be part of Nestle Purina because of the rigors of their science and their passion for enhancing the lives of pets.
"Everyday I get to leave work feeling proud of the work I've done," she said. "Not only does Nestle Purina support my professional development they promote a healthy balance of work and home life."
Outside of her profession, Villarreal enjoys volunteering with her husband Ronald at the local animal shelter, hiking with their dog Ivan, and playing with their three cats Beta, Omar, and Niko.
Alexander Murphy-Nakhnikian, BS'07, PhD Candidate in Neuroscience and Cognitive Science: Getting a head start
Alexander Murphy-Nakhnikian, a former participant in IU's Science, Technology, and Research Scholars program (STARS), gained valuable experience that helped him prepare for graduate school.
"By working with Professor George Rebec in the Program in Neuroscience for several years, I learned a great deal about the challenges involved in professional research," he said. "Having such experience as I started graduate school has made the transition from undergraduate to doctoral work easier."
After graduating in 2007 with majors in Psychology, Philosophy and Chemistry, Murphy-Nakhnikian decided at the last minute not to go to medical school. Instead, he took a job working for Rebec.
"(Rebec's) guidance inspired me to pursue a career in neuroscience," he said. "He is an outstanding teacher who is genuinely committed to providing excellent guidance to students from the undergraduate to post-doctoral level."
Today, Murphy-Nakhnikian is pursuing a Ph.D., double-majoring in neuroscience and cognitive science. He will work with Professor John Beggs in the Program in Neuroscience studying neural networks in the living brain.
"I am confident in my decision to pursue an academic career having experienced first-hand both the excitement and frustration that accompanies scientific research."
Megan Haselschwerdt, BS'07, Graduate Student in Human Development and Family Studies: Keeping an open mind
Megan Haselschwerdt, BS'07, found that despite her original plans to study a specific aspect of psychology, her degree and experience led her to a different track.
As an undergraduate, Haselschwerdt's plan was to be a clinical psychologist, and she thought it was the only route for her. Later, she learned about another possibility.
"I met with Dr. Linda Smith and she introduced me to Human Development and Family Studies," she said. "She explained it is important to keep my options open, and that clinical psychology was not the only option for me."
Once she looked into this possibility at the University of Illinois, she realized that research interests in Human Development and Family Studies were very similar to her own.
She applied to the program and was accepted.
"I did not fully realize this was the best program for me until about 1-2 months into my first semester," Haselschwerdt said. "I realized that this program really fit my needs and interests more than clinical psychology would have."
It is important, she said, to be open-minded and go with the flow.
"Everything works out for a reason, and I am proof," she said.
Laura Goebel, BA'08. School Psychology: The benefits of research.
Laura Goebel, BA'2008, had many experiences as an undergraduate that helped her along her path-including working in a lab, studying abroad in Spain, and even babysitting.
Today, Goebel is in a school psychology M.Ed./Ed.S. program at Loyola University Chicago and works as a part-time nanny and therapeutic day school volunteer. While taking the course "Planning your Psychology Career" (P 199), she had the assignment to make a portfolio about a psychology career she found interesting. The work made her realize what she wanted to do after college.
"I chose to research school psychology," she said, "and now I'm in a graduate program, pursuing school psychology as my career."
From 2005-06, Goebel worked as a research assistant in Linda Smith's Cognitive Development Lab. She said she would advise current students to be involved with a lab to gain experience outside the classroom.
During the 2006-07 school year, Goebel studied abroad in Madrid, Spain, which she cites as one of her most beneficial experiences at IU.
"I did miss IU while I was gone," she said. "But being able to study abroad really changed my life and helped me grow both professionally and personally."
In the future, Goebel hopes to use her knowledge of Spanish to work with Hispanic populations in her career.