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Researcher of the Month

April 2012

Bart Massi 

Psychology major, Minor in Biology, Class of 2012
URECA Summer 2011

Research Mentors: Dr. Christian Luhmann, Psychology; Dr. Joshua Rest, Ecology & Evolution


Be sure to talk with Bart Massi, a senior majoring in Psychology (with a minor in Biology) who will be presenting both a poster and a talk on April 25th! Bart has been working since fall 2010 in the Cognition and Decision Making research group of Dr. Christian Luhmann, Department of Psychology, and his Psi Chi talk, on the “Neural Correlates of Inequality Aversion,” will highlight work he’s done for hisPsychology honors thesis. Bart’s research was supported with funding from URECA in summer 2011; the URECA summer experience also provided time for Bart to gain familiarity and expertise with EEG protocols. 

URECA2011Bart recently presented a talk at the 2012 N.E.U.R.O.N. conference at Hunter College on his thesis topic, but he vividly remembers what it was like the first time he presented at URECA: “I was really nervous going into URECA. ..but by the end, my only thought was: I want to do that again! It was extremely fun to be there and have people walk up to you and ask you about something that you poured a lot of effort into. And you get to talk about it and they’ll listen to you! 

To further his honors project in the Luhmann group, Bart made sure to learn Python, Java, C++, and Matlab—partly through self-study, partly through coursework. He has become absolutely fascinated by issues in modeling, and his poster presentation at the URECA symposium, “Using genetic programming to model altruism”, explores core issues in modeling: for example, if you have alternative models that fit a data set equally well, how do you choose between them?  Bart’s enthusiasm for modeling has, in fact, led him to join a second research group this past fall: in thelaboratory of Dr. Joshua Rest in Ecology & Evolution, Bart works on computing a substitution rate-matrix model of CNS glutamate receptor evolution based on biophysical properties.

This fall, Bart will be joining Yale University’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program – Neuroscience track. Reflecting on his undergraduate experiences, Bart credits his undergraduate research experiences, his programming experience/background, and the Psychology honors program (that provided seminars over the course of three semesters to help students progress on a thesis) for preparing him well for graduate school! He is also extremely positive about his mentors, and is appreciative of all the time they put into their students.

Interestingly enough, Bart didn’t know what he planned to major in when he first started at SB, after graduating from Mahopac HS in Putnam County, NY. But after taking Psychology early on in his undergraduate career, Bart found the field to be compelling: “I just really liked the types of questions it involved. ..“ At SB, Bart has been quite active in the Psi Chi honor society, serving this year as Vice President of Psi Chi, and the previous year, as a membership coordinator: ”I like Psi Chi a lot. The meetings are informative and interesting, and we have very involved psychology students. We have fun and we’re an organization that does something important. We disseminate information about research opportunities, or pre-professional opportunities on campus and off-campus." Below are excerpts of his interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.

The Interview

Karen: What kind of research do you do? How did you get started?
Bart: I work with Dr. Christian Luhmann in the Cognition and Decision Making group in Psychology. The types of questions that we’re interested in answering are: first of all, are people altruistic? Do people care about the welfare of somebody else? Secondly, in what ways can we describe this altruism? What really separates our approach to the second question is that we’re doing it completely quantitatively. We’re using the models of economics/microeconomics, utility functions and those sorts of things, to describe people’s choices over amounts of money as they’re delivered to oneself or to other people. One of my long-term projects in the lab involves neuroimaging using EEG. We’re looking at reward related signals—most notably, the feedback related negativity (FRN) signal.

I’ve also recently become involved with a second research group at SB—working in an E&E lab with Dr. Joshua Rest. That project developed out of class project for his bioinformatics class. He really liked the work I did for the class project and asked me if I wanted to continue doing that work in his lab. And I did! …So we’re looking at the structures of different proteins and we’re looking at how these structures are dictated by the chemical properties of the individual amino acids and how specifically their individual chemical properties influence their evolution.

You’re getting quite a range of research experiences, then!
The work I’m doing in Dr. Rest’s lab seems very different from what I’m doing in Dr. Luhmann ’s lab but actually— it’s analytically similar. A lot of types of analyses we’re doing (maximum likelihood model fitting) are preserved between the two labs. What interests me the most--what I really like doing -is modeling. So in Dr. Luhmann’s lab, I’m modeling people’s choices. And in Dr. Rest’s lab, I’m modeling evolution.

How did you first get involved in research?
I was taking Judgment/Decision making with Dr. Richard Gerrig. And I thought the class was really great. So one time when I went to Dr. Gerrig’s office hours and spoke to him, I told him how I would love to do this type of work, and he pointed me to Christian Luhmann’s lab. Very soon after, I met with Dr. Luhmann and started working with him. It was pretty awesome getting to start right away! Then last spring, I applied for the URECA program and got the summer experience. It was very immersive – hopefully a taste of what graduate school is like!

Did this URECA summer experience help you progress in your research? 
It was awesome doing summer research—running subjects through EEG, learning about the protocol, talking to people, reading—all that really fun stuff.  There’s a lot of training involved for running subjects through EEG. You have to know how the equipment works, you have to know how to put the cap on somebody and do all the recording. If you mess up, you could waste a lot of time and possibly ruin some very expensive equipment. So over the summer I was trained in that protocol. I also was able to spend a lot of time reading and designing my own experiment—and collecting a little bit of data for another graduate student in the lab so that we could move onto collecting data for my experiment. (Since there’s really only one EEG system we use, there’s a queue for  thestudies that are being run at any given time.)

And how about the programming? Did you come in with that knowledge/background? 
That actually is a big component of my project. But I didn’t have it to start with. I learned to program in order to advance my honors project. I learned some from classes and some from teaching myself. I started on C++ alone, learned Java in class, then moved to Python and other languages … And I would say it turned out that it was one of the most useful skills I've acquired. Being able to program is so valuable and so many students in psychology or biology just don’t do it.

It must open up your opportunities …
I was able to write all my own experiment scripts, all my data analysis scripts. I can make them work the way I want them to work. I don’t have to deal with learning how to use someone else’s software: I just write my own software. I have my results in all my own data structures. I know what’s in those data structures. I know how to read them. I know how to do operations on them, and I can therefore write my own analysis scripts.

What is the biggest difference with doing research as opposed to classroom learning?
You learn more from doing research than you do in a classroom. The volume of information you acquire is actually greater, I’d say. Over the course of doing research, you have to do a bunch of reading. But the reading you do for research is generally more focused/less broad (than with classwork); and it’s also stuff that you really care about so it’s easier to absorb. …You’re not only learning facts but you’re learning abstract things like methods of analysis and ways to ask questions. You’re refining your ability to think about problems and ask questions that are pertinent to research in general.  Classes are certainly important; and helpful. But I would argue there is no one class for which I’ve learned an amount of information that even compares to what I’ve learned over the course of doing research.

You mentioned you are working on a senior thesis project. Is this through the Psychology Department’s Honors Program?
Yes —we have to design a project, do a bunch of reading for it — conduct the research and then write a thesis. All this happens over the course of 3 semesters. During each of the semesters, we have a one credit seminar course where we meet with the honors advisor, Dr. Antonio Freitas. During that time, we give presentations about papers we read and we present our own stuff. And it’s a little bit like a weekly lab meeting. It’s been a very valuable experience.

Was last year’s URECA poster symposium the first time you had to do a public presentation?
That was definitely the most public presentation I had done up to that point. I had done a couple of presentations at lab meetings but I remember that I was really nervous going into URECA. But by the end, my only thought was: I want to do that again! That was the best day ever!  It was extremely fun to be there and have people walk up to you and ask you about something that you poured a lot of effort into. And you get to talk about it and they’ll listen to you! It’s cool to have a bunch of people care about what you’re doing.

I’ve since had other opportunities to present. At N.E.U.R.O.N., which happened a couple of weeks ago at Hunter College…I brought my thesis project.I gave a talk on it to a bunch of people I had never met before in my entire life and it was pretty well received! …It was a blast to go there and talk about my research and hear about the research of my peers and other people I’d never encountered. It was definitely a lot of fun!

What are your future plans?
Looking forward, I’ll be going to Yale’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Ph.D. program, Neuroscience track. That was my top choice so I’m really excited about it. The labs I want to work in at Yale (e.g. Xiao Jing Wang’s lab, Daeyeol Lee’s lab) are doing modeling of decision making and neural activity. I’ll be using a  lot of the same analytical techniques that I’m using now.

Do you feel that being involved in research has prepared you well for graduate school?
Definitely! I have had the graduate students in Christian’s lab tell me I’m a lot like a graduate student already!. At this point, I’m spending the majority of my time on research and not classes. I figure that’s what I’m going to be doing in the future, but who knows!

The Psychology honors program also seems like a tremendous learning experience, and a great preparation for your future career. 
It’s been extremely valuable process. With doing a thesis, I think the beginning is the hardest part. When you first go into the program, you initially have a really vague idea of what your project will become. I knew, for instance, that I wanted to study social decision making but did not have a specific question in mind. I started by reading a lot of papers hoping that eventually an idea would come to me. And it did! …I refined that idea over time, working with my mentors and my peers. And that idea eventually became my own thesis project.  …
This is my third semester in the program. So by now I’ve been around this project for a long time and at this point, I know the ins and outs of the project. I know the analyses I can do, I know what they mean, I know what I’ve done. I definitely know what my data looks like. Now it’s just a matter of sitting down and getting the motivation to finish writing it all up!

Did you come to SB knowing you wanted to do Psychology?
Absolutely not! …My roommate during freshman year happened to be taking a Psychology course. And I thought I might have to take this eventually so I may as well just do it now, and joined his section of Psych 103. I just really liked the types of questions it involved. The more I got into it, the more I thought how I definitely want to do this!

What’s your favorite thing about research?
I like the fact that I can take an idea, some crazy, weird idea that I  have – and that I can go and do some amount ofreading and come up with my own questions and find a way to answer them on my own. Not by asking somebody else or not by asking a book, but by asking whatever the object of study is-be it the proteins I’m analyzing, or the people who I’m asking to make choices, or, the brains that I’m looking at with EEG.

Do you find in the course of your work that you get results that surprise you?
All the time! That happens more frequently than not. But it wouldn’t really be research if you knew what was coming. Sometimes you get results may not make sense to you but that’s why you keep pressing forward.

Do you have advice for other students about undergrad research?
The main point is to get started relatively early, and don’t ever be afraid to approach a professor or read their papers. It’s not really that hard.

So Stony Brook has worked out well for you.
I’m definitely extremely satisfied with how things turned out here.

Anything you want to add?
Research is really fun!

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