Becoming a Researcher: Knocking on Opportunity’s Door

This project actually began long before the start of the semester – I first began working on the project in the Spring semester of 2020. I became interested in research as soon as I started college in Fall 2018 because various psychology professors I had continually spoke about how valuable and rewarding research experience is. I sought out a lab to join in the middle of my first semester, and I was selected by my mentor, Dr. Melissa Libertus, for an interview. Luckily, the interview went well, and I have been in the Kids’ Thinking Lab ever since. Dr. Libertus creates a productive and extremely creative environment in her lab. She always wants her research assistants, whether they are undergrads, grad students, post-Baccs, post-Docs, etc., to form new research questions and potentially create new projects within the lab.

            One big project at our lab called the Parents Promoting Early Learning (PPEL) study was the one I had been working on, doing transcriptions and data cleaning as a freshman and sophomore. This project observes videos of various types of interactions between parents and their children and obtains data on aspects of their speech, such as their question frequency, their degree of communication, the amount of math they use, etc. I noticed that gesturing was a large part of these interactions that goes unnoticed. There is past research suggesting that when parents gesture to their children, they offer a secondary learning aid to further explain to young children the concepts they are explaining through speech. For example, gesturing a round shape with your hands while saying “circle” might help a child learn the shape better than the word “circle” itself. From this background research, I decided to start coding for gesture in these video interactions and analyzing the effectiveness of these gestures.

            My advice to a student who wants to conduct research but does not know where to start would be to talk to your professors! My very first research opportunity, although brief, was offered to me because I approached my social psychology professor after class and asked if she was doing any research that I could assist her with. That experience made me realize that I liked research but wanted to try out different fields of psychology other than social. At a psychology club meeting, the lab manager at the time of the Kids’ Thinking Lab attended a meeting to advertise the lab and get the emails of those interested. There are multiple ways to get involved, whether it is talking to teachers themselves, joining clubs associated with your major, or pursuing the first research experience for undergraduates offered by Pitt.

            Because I have plans to attend graduate school for clinical psychology, ample research experience is necessary for admission. Doing this research is vital in ensuring I have enough experience to be a good candidate. I am grateful for the multitude of research opportunities I have been lucky enough to have throughout my undergrad years at Pitt, and I am looking forward to the research experience I will gain throughout my years in graduate school.

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