The extraordinary work of PBS summer student researchers

Each summer, PBS faculty mentor students who are part of specialized programs designed to broaden participation in undergraduate research and give students the tools they need to lead successful careers. 

The William Lee Science Impact Program (Lee SIP) is a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program designed to create opportunities for undergraduate students to engage directly in the cutting-edge research occurring on campus, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups in science disciplines, such as first-generation college students. Lee SIP scholars are mentored directly by research faculty, work within a research team, and participate in professional development workshops.

The Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP) Scholars Program is part of an alliance of New England institutions that receive funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) to strengthen the preparation, representation, and success of under-represented minority students majoring in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. LSAMP students receive mentoring and tutoring throughout their college career, guidance in creating and maintaining a research portfolio, and opportunities to travel to participate in research related events.

Lee SIP Spotlight Scholars


Van Le stands next to research poster

Van Le

Physical Health Care Experiences in the Emergency Department for Patients with Mental Illness and Substance Use Disorders - A Qualitative Study

Van Le, Linda M. Isbell, Summer R. Whillock

Our project aimed to better understand the physical care experiences of patients with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders in the Emergency Department (ED). Prior to the summer, research team members interviewed eligible patients in a Level I Trauma hospital in New England, asking them about aspects of their care experience and follow-up questions based on their responses. During the summer, we analyzed interviews using Grounded Theory methods, dove into each patient's experience, and organized emerging themes into a model of patients’ positive experiences (e.g., holistic consideration of needs, attentiveness) and negative experiences (e.g., stigma, diagnostic errors), as well as recommendations from patients. This model provides the foundation for developing interventions to improve care in the ED for patients with mental illnesses and/or substance use disorders.

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Van presents her poster in 3 minute competition

Van Le is the second-place winner of the Lee SIP 3-minute research competition!


Marina Morcos stands next to research poster

Marina Morcos

Exploring Syntactic Effects on Children’s Large Number Generativity

Marina Morcos, Jenna Croteau, Joonkoo Park

The Cognitive and Developmental Neuroscience Lab, led by Dr. Park, believes that one of the most critical cognitive differences that distinguishes us from other animals is our developed number and language systems. Numbers are the building blocks for later and more complex mathematical thinking, while language allows us to transfer abstract knowledge like the meaning of numbers. As soon as a child is born, they are exposed to external environments that encourage critical thinking and problem- solving using math and language. However, little research has been done to focus on how these two work together to shape this numerical understanding. We hope to bridge this gap and determine how and when mathematical learning occurs.

Over the summer, I was working on an online study with the goal to determine how children use the different syntactic rules and patterns of Arabic numerals and number phrases to understand number concepts. Our hypothesis is that children first use number phrase rules to create imprecise compositional generative numbers and they later build precise, compositional generative numbers by using the dimensional representation of Arabic numerals. This usually occurs when the child has been exposed to formal schooling and is introduced to mathematical problems, such as addition. To test this hypothesis, 4–8- year-old children are asked to generate a new number larger than the probe number they are given. By looking at the ways children change and retain the syntactic structure of the probe number, we hope to better understand how children think about numbers across development.

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Nathaniel Holden pictured with photo of neurons

Nathaniel Holden

Passive Reward Learning, is it Possible?

Nathaniel Holden, Sarah Cartwright, David Moorman

Nathaniel’s project focused on how we learn about the value of rewards. In most cases, rewards require actions (find food, acquire it, consume it). This raises the question as to whether the brain can control learning about the value of something independent of the actions associated with acquiring it. To disentangle this, Nathaniel measured learning of an association between a cue (a tone) and a passively-delivered reward—where reward was delivered in the absence of any action. He then tested the strength of this learning by training subjects to respond to a tone associated with the reward. These results were compared to a control group who received the cue tone and reward independently. Nathaniel was able to demonstrate that, indeed, reward learning can rapidly occur in the absence of action.

In the next stages of his training, Nathaniel will investigate which brain regions are associated with this type of action-independent reward learning. In addition to furthering our understanding of how neural systems drive reward learning, these studies have the potential to inform us about brain sites underlying a wide range of psychiatric diseases such as depression (where reward and motivation representations are diminished) or compulsive use of drugs and other rewards, such as unhealthy foods. By the end of his research experience, Nathaniel will have developed a comprehensive skill set in behavioral neuroscience—from literature review and experimental design to data collection and analysis. In addition, he will have made a significant- contribution to an important line of research with relevance to both basic and clinical/translational neuroscience.



LSAMP Spotlight Scholars


Olachi Unaka presenting poster

Olachi Unaka

Emergency Nurses’ Emotional Responses to Patients

Olachi Unaka, Linda M. Isbell, Summer R. Whillock, & Nathan R. Huff

In this project we investigated nurses’ emotional responses to different types of patients in an emergency department(ED) setting. We aimed to identify differences in clinical-decision making and behavior during patient encounters that were either positive or negative, and aimed to identify the types of encounters and patients that elicit different emotions. Emergency nurses (n=160) were randomly assigned to recall and describe either a positive or negative (i.e., angry) recent patient encounter they had.  Findings revealed that nurses reported experiencing intense emotions during these encounters. Nurses tended to be more happy, self-assured, and engaged in positive encounters, and more angry, sad, anxious, fatigued and less engaged in negative encounters. Despite this, most nurses indicated that their emotions did not influence their clinical decision-making and care for their patients. Importantly however, the patients most frequently described in negative encounters are from vulnerable communities for whom health-care disparities are well-established (e.g., Black individuals, those with substance use, mental illness, frequent ED utilizers).  Interventions are needed to address these disparities.

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Liana Munoz pictured with research poster

Liana Munoz

Investigating the Correlation between Age, Stressor Index, and Heart Rate Variability in Women Ages 35+

Liana Munoz , Jennifer Christensen, Kirby Deater-Deckard

In this research women over the ages of 35 and up (with the oldest of 50 years old) are being studied through a manual data analysis utilizing Google Excel Sheets. The primary thesis for this research project is as follows: How low heart rate variability can be correlated with different stressors in women ages 35-50. In order to reach a consensus on this data it was necessary to have background knowledge on the process of inspiration and expiration, which is key to understanding respiratory sinus arrhythmia. This is also crucial to answer our research question regarding heart rate variability. 

The data set utilized for this project included women ages 35 and up with measurements of stressor index, age, and heart rate variability. These were all collected from a Mom study and the data set was provided by Professor Kirby Deater-Deckard. An analysis was run manually through google sheets where three graphs were curated. One graph measured the correlation between Z-stress and age, another measured the correlation between heart rate variability and Z-stress, and the last graph was a correlation between heart rate variability and age. 

From these graphs one preliminary result that was found was high variability showing optimal results. Further conclusions are in progress, however, current conclusions can be made. As a result, no concrete correlation was seen between Heart Rate Variability and Stressor Index. It can be said that observing a larger age range may bring more variety to graphs and correlations found. Through intricate analysis Graph 1 and Graph 3 was seen to have a positive correlation. Due to the guidance and mentorship of professor Kirby Deater-Deckard and Jennifer Christensen this research was able to be carried out. Huge thank you and acknowledgement to these two amazing people.

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