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The fruits of undergraduate research

by Angela Herring

“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.”

From left to right, Dalal Alhomaizi, Anna Neumann and Lauren Sears, three of over 60 undergraduate student researchers in Lisa Feldman Barrett's Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory.

From left to right, Dalal Alhomaizi, Anna Neumann and Lauren Sears, three of over 60 undergraduate student researchers in Lisa Feldman Barrett’s Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory.

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.

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 11, 2013

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