Eastern Connecticut State University (ECSU) is one of the four regional, comprehensive universities in the Connecticut State University system, but the level of faculty attention students receive and the unique opportunities students are presented with give ECSU a small school feeling. A prime example is the psychophysiology lab established by Dr. Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault and Dr. James Diller, where students gain laboratory data collection skills, receive one-to-one mentoring, collaborate in cutting-edge studies, and gain invaluable research experience—all vital elements in pursuing further education and future careers in psychology.
“Psychophysiology uses physical processes to measure psychological constructs,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault, Associate Professor of Psychology. One of Dr. Salters-Pedneault’s major areas of study is fear and anxiety—a psychological area that can be difficult to quantify in participants. “One way to do that is to ask them how much fear or anxiety they’re experiencing, but there’s variability in how good people are at reporting about their internal experiences,” she says. “So, another tool I have available to me is to use psychophysiology because there are physical processes that happen in the body that relate to fear and anxiety.”
The way in which these processes are measured relies on crystal-clear hypotheses, specialized instrumentation, significant preparation, and a careful approach to gathering information. Dr. Salters-Pedneault has a background in clinical psychology, earning her doctoral degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston with predoctoral training at Harvard Medical School and Boston University School of Medicine. “After I finished my graduate training, I received a career development award from the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, and a component of that was training to do psychophysiology to study combat veterans,” she says. “I was essentially trying to study how we could improve treatments for PTSD in combat veterans, and I was doing that by exploring different ways of extinguishing fear response in the laboratory.”
In the lab at Eastern, different modules allow different types of data acquisition. “We can measure things like galvanic skin response”—essentially how much sweat your body is producing—“which reflects activity of the sympathetic nervous system, tapping into the fight or flight response,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault. “We can measure heart rate, which is a mix of sympathetic and parasympathetic influences. We also have been building on the capabilities of the lab, so we can do things like present stimuli and then quickly assess the physiological responses to that particular stimulus. We can measure baseline levels of participants’ physiological responses, but we can also assess the response to those particular stimuli.”
Some experiments utilize a number of stimuli, requiring a complex and well-rehearsed approach to the problem. Dr. Jenna Scisco, Assistant Professor of Psychology at ECSU, studies eating behavior, how stress affects choice, and how real or perceived rudeness can influence our actions. Over the past year, Dr. Scisco and her students have been developing an experiment to gather information about all three areas of research. “We began last spring by thinking about how we would design the study, and we came up with our hypothesis,” says Dr. Scisco. “Last fall, we began scripting, determining how we were going to execute the experiment, and gathering the equipment we’d need.”
The preparation has led to a study that will be performed this spring in the lab at Eastern with the help of five undergraduate psychology students and upwards of 100 participants. On the psychophysiological side, Dr. Scisco and her student researchers hope to see how elements of the study affect heart rate, performance, and sweating, but the data will also cross into the larger field of psychology.
While studying eating behavior at Clemson University, Dr. Scisco helped to develop a “bite counter”—a wearable device that tracks eating intake—which can provide data on how much food someone has eaten over a given period, how quickly they ate, how frequently, how many calories, and more without having to account for memory errors and other erroneous data. This research led to Dr. Scisco’s position in the Military Nutrition Division at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine prior to her position at Eastern. She is the principal investigator of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory—a comprehensive title for the studies she and her students conduct with the theme of helping improve individuals’ occupational health and functionality.
Dr. Salters-Pedneault and Dr. Diller, Associate Professor of Psychology, have collaborated on a number of projects with students in the lab, and have been instrumental to the acquisition of new equipment. “The lab has sort of been built up over time,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault. “We originally established it with some start-up funds from Eastern to purchase some of the equipment. A company called Biopac, which develops psychophysiology setups for both research and teaching purposes, makes the equipment we have. We have the research version so that we can use it for teaching, but it is also calibrated to collect very precise data for research.”
Originally, the lab was started with a galvanic skin response module and heart rate module. Dr. Diller later received an AAUP grant to add a stimulus presentation module, which allows researchers to collect information on responses. “Last year, Dr. Diller bought an EMG (electromyography) module to use for our department’s summer research institute, which allows you to measure muscle contractions,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault. “What’s cool about that is that you can measure expressions of emotion that people don’t even realize they’re making—you can tell whether someone is smiling or grimacing based solely on those muscle contractions.”
For students, this lab-based research experience can be essential, especially when continuing on to doctoral studies or careers in research. Dr. Scisco currently has one undergraduate student with plans to pursue a PhD in social psychology, another interested in a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and another seeking a master’s in social work and gerontology.
Dr. Diller, who has received two CSU-AAUP research grants for research projects, conducted “one project in 2010 that resulted in a publication with Dr. Salters-Pedneault and a presentation with a student (Andrew Nuzzolilli). Additionally, I had three other students (Connor Patros, Joy Zuzel, Brendan Broadbin, and Robert Brown) work with Kristi and I to collect these data. Of these five students, four went on to graduate training. Having this research experience helped to make them more competitive applicants to grad school, allowing them to pursue their professional goals.”
More recently, “over the past year, I have done some conceptual work in behavior analysis (publishing two student-coauthored papers in the primary conceptual journal in my field, The Behavior Analyst) and have been working with two students to present at the annual meeting of the Berkshire Association for Behavior Analysis,” says Dr. Diller. “I am currently supervising two new research assistants to look at the influence of delay discounting and financial choices, and I’m also supervising two independent study projects evaluating components of training of behavior analysts. It’s been a busy and productive year!”
“Basically, students run our lab,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault. “Dr. Diller and I direct the lab, but our students do almost all of the data collection. In the psychology department, we have a course, which is a research assistantship course. It’s a special course by permission of their instructor, and our best and brightest students who have interest in doing research can sign up for the class with us, and they become our research assistants. We train them to use the psychophysiology equipment such as putting on electrodes, run the software that collects all of the data, teach them how to score psychophysiology data—how to interpret it and how to make sense of it—and they do the vast majority of our human subject data collection.”
Since collecting psychophysiology data requires a specialized set of skills, this research experience is invaluable for students in their future careers. “This is a sought-out set of skills that not everyone gets to experience,” says Dr. Salters-Pedneault. “This kind of experience that we can give students is by virtue of the fact that we have a small, liberal arts school setting. We can get to know our students, and we can give them a lot of personal attention. It’s not something that could happen on a large scale—it really requires individual, one-to-one mentoring.”
As Dr. Scisco’s study brings in upwards of 100 participants over the course of this semester, her research assistants will test the hypothesis they worked to develop over a year ago. The work these students perform this spring will very likely present them with opportunities to publish their research findings—another vitally important element in pursuing further education or future employment in psychological research.