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Researcher of the Month

June 2014

Christine Spaulding

Psychology Major, Honors College, Class of 2015

Research Mentors:   Dr. Matthew Lerner,  Psychology 
also:  Dr. Suparna Rajaram,  Psychology,  Dr. Kenneth Gadow,  Psychiatry


Christine SpauldingChristine Spaulding, an Honors College student (class of 2015) majoring in Psychology, has been a member since August 2013 of the Social Competence and Treatment Laboratory of Dr. Matthew Lernerof Psychology. In April of this year, Christine presented a poster for the first time at URECA’s campus-wide undergraduate research  Celebration. Her poster, titled “ Wanting It Too Much: the Unexpected Effect of Social Motivation on Emotion Recognition,” presents quantitative data on facial emotion recognition in children with autism spectrum disorders. Just three weeks after this event, Christine had the opportunity to co-present  the poster & project with her graduate student mentor, Heather Garman, at the 2014 International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta, Georgia, with support from a URECA travel grant award.

Christine is very happy to be a part of the Psychology Department’s select Honors Thesis program, which includes weekly seminars under the direction of Dr. Patricia Whitaker on a wealth of topics, ranging from research methods to applying to graduate school. And Christine has found the collaboration with her peers to be invaluable: “ One of the benefits of being with the Psychology Honors program is that you get to collaborate with people in your own major. And working with other researchers in my area is so helpful!   … it’s a little brain trust that the university gave to us which is valuable.”

In the next academic year, Christine will be completing an honors thesis, on “ Trends in school-based services and symptoms in children with ASDs and other clinical disorders ” — a project which will be supervised by Dr. Matthew Lerner (Psychology) and Dr. Kenneth Gadow (Psychiatry), and will analyze data obtained from the Cody Center.  Christine initially was introduced to research at SB as a sophomore, working as a research assistant in the laboratory of Dr. Suparna Rajaram (Psychology)where she ran participants through collaborative memory tasks. This coming summer, Christine is participating in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute Summer Scholars Program – and will ben engaged on a project evaluating peer bullying intervention programs in urban schools, working under the direction of Dr. Stephen Leff.

Christina’s hobbies include knitting, singing and camping. She is a member of the autism awareness club club; and plans to apply to child clinical psychology PhD programs with the hope of continuing research in autism spectrum disorders. Christine attended Chazy Central Rural School in upstate New York, and Dixon High School in Dixon, Illinois before coming to Stony Brook. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan,  URECA  Director.

The Interview

Karen . What’s your area of research?
Christine. I work in an Autism Spectrum Disorders research lab with Dr. Lerner. Currently, we’re still ramping up several projects – and starting to do some EEG work. But essentially what our lab is focused on is how children with autism and children in general make friends and deal with social interaction.

My URECA poster draws on existing data that Dr. Lerner came in with – that we analyzed for information about social motivation, and facial emotion recognition, and whether there’s any relationship between these. It is widely perceived that children with autism may not be socially motivated, but what we found in our research is that many children are very highly motivated to make friends according to parent report. We analyzed the EEG neural correlates for the N170 which is a portion of the brain that lights up when you first recognize a face. And we found that there wasn’t a relationship between those two, but that social motivation and the N170 definitely play separate roles in facial emotion recognition. We also found that adolescents with autism had a harder time reading the emotions of peers their age, than they did with adults— which was an interesting result, and might be a direction for future research. 

What was your experience of presenting at URECA’s Celebration?
I really enjoyed it! I ‘m friends with people in the bio and engineering departments and it was great to see their research and to discuss research projects across fields. It was really interesting to learn about other students’ work as well as to share my own. At URECA, because a lot of the people are from different majors and may have no background in this field... it definitely is a different starting point to walk them through the poster and explain what’s going on. What’s challenging is that everybody talks in technical terms when they’re in their lab– but when you take your work to the general public, there’s a difference in how you have to speak. You really need to get practice in learning to present in a way that people will understand what you’re doing.

Was this your first time presenting?
Yes. And then I presented a poster at the International Meeting for Autism Research in Atlanta—just a few weeks after the URECA event. It definitely did help having that initial experience at URECA. But it was also almost easier to present at the Int’l conference because people we talked to had the awareness of the past literature, and had some understanding of the EEG studies and the background. 
There were actually only a few undergrads there at the Autism meeting. So that also made it a real special experience for James and me to be there. We also got some really good feedback-- some good suggestions including looking at children who had past services to see if that played a role in their scores on facial emotion recognition tasks. I was really excited to have the opportunity to go there.

Is the research going to be the basis of your senior thesis project next year?
No –actually my senior thesis is on a separate topic.  I’m working with both Dr. Lerner and Dr. Kenneth Gadow and we’ll be using data from the CODY center. That project will be about whether there are trends in school-based services and symptoms in children with ASDs and other clinical disorders.  

How did you decide on this topic for your thesis?
When we  first started coding the data from the CODY Center in the  lab– and there is a lot! -- I went up to Dr. Lerner and said, “This something I’m really interested in and I would love to do a paper on this.” And that’s how I got to start developing this into a topic for my senior thesis – which I’m doing for both the Honors College, and the Psychology Honors Thesis program.  I’ve always been interested in education-related projects.

When did you first get involved with research at SB?
I started as a sophomore. I didn’t know at first exactly what I wanted to do. But I found Dr. Rajaram’s research on collaborative memory-and how you remember things in groups to be very interesting. So I went to her and interviewed with her grad student and ended up being a research assistant in her lab. I worked with Hae Yoon Choi, a graduate student, and it was a really good experience. I got all the ethical training, plus personal interaction with other students for the subject pool. And then when I  took a class with Megan Tudor on autism and intellectual disabilities – and heard about Dr. Lerner, a new professor coming to SB, I got interested in joining his group—which I did last fall. It was a smooth transition. And I stayed some of the fall semester with Hae Yoon Choi running participants for her a few hours a week.

At what point did you join the Honors Psychology program?
I remember going back and forth about whether to apply to the program –but I finally applied and am really glad I did. I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful. I would be doing a senior thesis for the Honors College anyway, but one of the benefits of being with the Psychology Honors program is that you get to collaborate with people in your own major. And working with other researchers in my area is so helpful! There are about 12 of us involved this year. And it’s really great to be around people more experienced with EEG than I am—to be able to learn from them, and to pick each other’s brains …
We also get more interaction with faculty in the department too. Dr. Patricia Whitaker is our program mentor – and she runs our seminar that we have once a week where we talk about research, about our senior theses, about grad school and where we should apply. I’ve gained so many skills through this program.

What are your future plans ?
I’m interested in a Ph.D. in the field of child clinical psychology- and continuing in autism research.  

What will you be doing this summer?
I’m going to work in the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia in a summer program where I’ll be working with a clinical psychologist, Dr. Stephen Leff. My research will be involve designing interventions for peer aggression and bullying and seeing whether they’re effective in urban elementary schools.  Even though it’s not directly an autism project, there are tie-ins because children with autism are often heavily bullied in school settings.

Did you know you wanted to explore psychology when you came to SB?
Yes, I had taken a community college “Intro to Psych” class as a junior in high school. I felt sure it was something I was really interested in, and that I wouldn’t get a chance to take it as an elective in high school otherwise. And it worked out well. I was lucky to have a great Into to Psych teacher who had been in the field for a long time working as a school psychologist at a local high school. Then when I came to SB, I became more interested in autism from the coursework I’d done.
The subject really fascinates me, in part because of experiences my mother and my sister (both educators) have had working with children at the elementary school level. That really inspired me. I wanted to do work in that field, because teachers don’t have enough help.

How has your involvement with research enhanced your education?
It’s amazing how many parallels you’ll find between what you’re learning in class and what you’re doing with your research. Even if I’m in a bio class, there’s overlap with what we’re learning about EEGs for lab work, and what we’re learning about brain activity in the classroom. And I really enjoy it. 

Do you have any advice for other students?
For psychology I think it’s important that you really have a strong motivation for the research. That’s true of all subjects, I think. You don’t necessarily need to have a personal experience, but the subject I research is important to me and that has to be true. And that shows a lot when you first start doing research—that you’re motivated to learn more, that you’re really willing to help and you’re really excited to work hard and expand the research of that field.

Research also teaches you to organize your time. Altogether, I’ve learned to be a better prepared person.  I don’t have a lot of much time for extracurriculars, apart from an Autism Awareness club that we founded. I have a job in addition to research and would like to take on a second job as a senior. And, of course, I have classes. But my advice is to just try to keep going. If you think about it too much, it becomes overwhelming. You just have to think about what’s next and not everything else you have to do.

What role have your mentors played in your experience of undergraduate research?
I’ve had the benefit of great mentors—great faculty, and great master’s and PhD students. That’s been a very positive experience and I’m excited to work with them… Dr. Rajaram and Hae Yoon Choi were very supportive-even after I left their lab; they helped me with my internships and both were excited for me. Dr. Rajaram was very supportive of my finding what I wanted to do for myself.   And Dr. Lerner, my current PI, is really good at guiding me – and the other undergrad in the Psych honors program, James-- making sure we don’t go off course too far-and helping us through the daunting process of doing a thesis.

What qualities are valuable for doing research?
Curiosity….it’s all about wanting to know more. Sometimes you’ll go down a rabbit hole when you’re looking for an article –and you end up 6 sources later finding that you learned a lot but didn’t actually find the document you needed. So then you go back and start again. But it’s exciting –getting that wrapped up in the research, seeing what’s out there. That’s how I felt at the conference I went to this past weekend too –that there’s so much to learn, so much out there.  It’s hard to pick one thing– one thing to focus on but it is also really exciting.