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Students investigate binge drinking, risky behavior

August 26, 2013

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During the summer, Lewis & Clark students continue to work hard in their fields of study. By collaborating with faculty on research projects, students are able to engage their curiosity, expand their learning, and prepare for life after college, all while making meaningful contributions to scholarship.

Melissa Newton-Mora ’14, Juliana Pirkle B.A. ’13, and Clackamas High School student Kyra Ortega-Schwartz are working closely with Todd Watson, assistant professor of psychology, to study cognitive inhibition in two different age groups: young adults and pre-school aged children. Their study focuses on behavioral impulses and inhibition. In the following Q&A, the students reflect on their experience.

What are you researching?

We are studying cognitive inhibition in two different age groups—young adults and preschool-aged children ages 3 and 4. Cognitive inhibition is the mind’s ability to tune out inappropriate stimuli and behavioral impulses.

More specifically, our lab involving young adults is investigating disinhibition in binge drinkers, as well as possible correlations to binge drinking consequences, other substance abuse, sensation seeking, risky behavior, and trait impulsivity as compared to normal drinkers. In preschoolers, we are investigating sensation seeking, risky behavior, externalizing behaviors, and the correlations between these behavioral facets and the children’s performance on cognitive control tests.

Fundamentally we are asking if there a relationship, in both populations, between the risky behaviors observed in the real world and the cognitive inhibition we test in our lab.

Does your research have any potential applications in the real world, or will it influence other work in your field?

Our study may help us to better understand and identify where in development cognitive markers play a role in real world risky behaviors. This could lead to more effective preventative and proactive strategies both to prevent inhibition related problems like conduct disorders or alcoholism, as well as strengthen cognitive control abilities in children to reinforce skills that may lead to future success.

Both studies could aid in finding markers that indicate vulnerability to cognitive deficits that could lead to the development of impulsive behaviors with health consequences. Additionally, this research could one day be used to help us better understand the dual relationship of the impacts of the environment and genetics in the development of risky behavioral patterns, which in turn, could lead to improved treatments for those suffering from conditions such as alcoholism or conduct disorders.

Is any of your research taking place off campus? If so, what’s that experience like?

We are gathering data on our preschool participants from OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. This is a great opportunity to create a dialogue between the scientific community and the public—to educate people who may not necessarily come into contact with the scientific process on a daily basis about what it is that researchers do, and how our work impacts their lives and the lives of their children. This opportunity is also exciting to us because we get to work with children and get them excited about science.

How has working closely with faculty influenced your education?

It allows for great one-on-one dialogue with a knowledgeable mentor who can answer all of your annoying questions. It’s also very inspiring, especially since Professor Watson has published many of his own papers. Additionally, it gives us a tangible example of someone that has been successful in a field that we would like to pursue. We are lucky to have our specific faculty mentor because he is very approachable and creates an inviting environment for us to explore our ideas, interests, and questions.

How do you hope your experiences this summer will impact your future studies or professional pursuits?

We all have different aspirations for our experience with this research. Some of us hope to move into a career in research psychology, while others of us are still deciding if psychology is a field we would like to pursue. All of us are grateful for the skills and knowledge we are accumulating throughout this experience. We hope to retain some of the important lessons, such as community outreach and the merits of science, in any field we might pursue.

Anything else you’d care to add?

We feel that everyone should try to get involved in the scientific community. You don’t have to think of yourself as a scientist to be an active scientific learner. The merits of scientific research are widespread in any industry or field. Learning to think critically and having discussions about factual information and its applications can lead to an educated community and help citizens make informed decisions.  

About the program

The John S. Rogers Science Research Program allows students to participate in graduate-level research with an emphasis on strengthening their communication skills by requiring them to present their findings. This summer, 40 students are pursuing topics that range from artificial intelligence and motivating behavior to holographic tweezers and zebra fish. Working closely with peers and faculty members, students undertake research questions and present their work in two public venues.

“We’re not asking you, ‘What’s the answer?’ We’re saying, ‘What’s the question?’” said Michael Broide, director of the Rogers program and chair of the physics department. “I think what sets our program apart is that regardless of what project you are on, we’re all going to come together as a group to present what we’re doing in as accessible a way as possible. In science, it’s such an important skill to be able to explain cogently what you’re doing.”

Students make their final research presentation at the Rogers summer science poster session, held in conjunction with the Science Without Limits Symposium. Scheduled for September 18, the poster session is free and open to the public.

Department of Psychology Rogers Summer Research Projects

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.