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The fruits of undergraduate research

“Do I go straight to grad school or should I try to find a full time job—that’s a really huge question and you can’t Google it,” said recent graduate Lauren Sears. She opted for the latter, but with a bit of a twist: She is continuing a two-year-long research assistantship in Distinguished Professor of Psychology Lisa Feldman Barrett‘s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory.

Sears is one of some 100 undergraduates to work in the lab this year alone. Many of them agree that the value of the experience is not limited to hands-on research training, but also includes the mentorship they get from working side by side with graduate students and post docs. “I got so much advice from them,” said Sears.

Another student, fifth-year Anna Neumann, said the lab has provided her much more than a traditional research assistantship. “The lab has a bunch of fruit on the tree, and if you climb high enough you can get whatever fruit you want,” she said. “If you put in the time, you get tenfold back.”

Lauren Sears (left) and Tamina Daruvala (center) are two of nearly 70 undergraduate student researchers in psychology professor Lisa Feldman Barrett’s (right) lab, one of the largest on campus. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The lab is focused on one main question: What are emotions? But the projects students work on span a cross section of disciplines, methods, and investigations. Sears has been working on a project aimed at understanding whether different individuals’ feelings and physiological reactions to arousing and evocative stimuli can predict how they will react to emotional information outside of their awareness. The team measures things such as heart rate, skin conductance, facial muscle movements, and respiration to determine if our physiological response can be a predictor of how they react to the unseen.

Recent graduate Dalal Alhomaizi is using a similar approach to study an entirely different question. “We’re looking at how concepts play a role in how emotions are constructed,” she said. Here, a computer screen in the lab quickly flashes words representing particular emotions in front of a participant who has been tasked with labeling the emotion represented in each image. In this case, the team is examining how language plays a role in our concept of emotion.

Neumann works on a project studying peoples’ shifting perceptions of food. For instance, if a participant is presented with an image of a baby sheep before being asked to comment on how appetizing a plate of lamb chops looks, he might have a different response than if the order were reversed.

“What’s really cool about working with Dr. Barrett,” said Neumann, “is that she has changed the field so much that we’re always at the forefront of it, right at the edge of where this science stands.” Sears and Alhomaizi shook their heads in agreement.