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Psychology Experiment Studies Coping Mechanisms

“Right this way,” says Elizabeth Rogers as she leads a student to a computer terminal to begin writing. This is a daily routine for the seven students working with Dr. Wayne Messer and Dr. Rob Smith on a psychology research project entitled, “Anxiety, Stress Reduction Techniques and Alcohol Expectancies Among College Students: A Comparative Approach to the Study of Coping.” This project is just one of the 12 projects that are taking place around BC’s campus. But what makes this one unique is that two departments are merging for one purpose. Two of the students, David Link and Enrique Garcia, are from the chemistry department here at the college. They work with Dr. Matt Saderholm, a chemistry professor, to develop a way to measure amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone.

In the cognitive lab Elizabeth works diligently with Virgie Petty collating and sorting through the paperwork from dozens of participants. “There is a lot to go through and so many factors to consider,” says Virgie, “there is a lot of responsibility associated with a project like this, everything has to be neat, orderly, and confidential....I definitely feel like I have much more respect now for people who do this for a living.”

Elizabeth begins a session by distributing a survey, “Through questionnaires students are placed in relaxation activity groups, the participants then return twice weekly to participate in an activity that should theoretically lower their cortisol levels”. These activities are meant to introduce participants to alternative methods of stress reduction. “Better coping mechanisms may lead to lower stress and anxiety levels and thus the participant is less likely to feel the need to partake of alcohol as a stress reducer,” says Elizabeth.

While waiting for their next participants to stroll onto the lab, Elizabeth and Virgie, quietly chat about the project that they are working on and what it means to them. “I am learning how a research study is conducted and the different procedures, and how you’re supposed to greet participants… it is actually very involved,” says Elizabeth, “but I am enjoying myself all the same”. Virgie notes the involvement and commitment with which one must dedicate themselves to the project, “Sometimes sifting through surveys can get a little tedious, but you have to keep at it because the results are what count.”

As a freshman, Virgie values this project as her first real experience with research, “I am learning a lot because I haven’t been in a subject setting and I haven’t had to do my own research, I am really starting from scratch. She hopes that the knowledge provided by this project might help her to better understand the expectations that she might face in the future.

Meanwhile, David, a senior chemistry major, and Enrique, a sophomore biology major, work diligently in the chemistry lab. The hot, muggy lab is no match for these science lovers, though, as the pair prepare protocols in preparation for the cortisol testing. “We spend most of our time working together to set up protocol to organize chemicals for what we need; and making up the appropriate solutions.” says David. A typical day for these two is to unlock all the necessary labs in the science building, and sit down to discuss the days work. Once that has been decided, they usually start by making standard solution, which contains various known elements in order to test the instruments’ readings. Then, they make a buffer; a solution that avoids ph changes so that the ph levels will not breakdown the proteins they are using. Then they run an elisa, an enzyme linked immunoassay, or an antibody used with a antigen (in this case cortisol), to measure the concentration of cortisol, the stress hormones that will hopefully be affected throughout the psychology portion of the study. Following this procedure the pair uses a fluorimeter, a device that uses light to measure emission and excitation of a molecule, to figure out the concentration of cortisol using the fluorimeter’s readings. Then they repeat and analyze different concentrations to get it to come out as clean as possible.

David finds the project quite challenging because of the level that the project takes. “Its just very hard to understand some of it. But I’m getting a great jump start on things that others won’t have. I always have help from the professors here. I’ve asked a lot of the same questions 20 times, but I now understand after the 21st time. It’s a crash course but it’s a lot more than a lot of others will have.”

While this project may seem overwhelming, David and Enrique alleviate some of the pressure by helping one another in the lab. “We find at different times ourselves being assistant to the other. Only because with one person taking control it makes it go a little quicker, but its different for each depending on what we’re doing,” says David.

Initially, David found that the project may have been more than he bargained for. “When I first started I was very overwhelmed with information. We read article after article… so much reading during 9-5 for a few days. We were trying to understand things that grad students are trying to understand. We’ve had no biochemistry classes, and we’re both naive to this. But I’m getting a great jump-start on thing that others in undergrad won’t have.”

But after a stressful beginning, David and Enrique were able to prevail with a protocol, and new appreciation for their knowledge. “Looking back to the day we’ve started compared to now, we’ve learned a phenomenal amount and we’ve been able to hone in what we actually need to do rather than generalizing on ideas.” While the project has still not been complete, the two hope to finish up with results for a presentation.

The contribution made by this project has already far exceeded the expectations of the researchers in that both the psychology and chemistry departments will benefit from the results. The students feel more adamantly that it is they and not the school that have benefited the most, “I know that this research will contribute to the school, but I feel it may contribute much more greatly to my understanding of the processes and my education on the subject matter…I hope to see others participate in similar ventures in the future,” says Elizabeth. The finalization of this project leaves the student researchers with both knowledge and the hope that the data and project might be applied to the classroom so that other students might gain a better understanding of research practices and the value of teamwork.

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