Author: Elwyn Pratt
Take the elevator to the third floor of Swan Hall and the doors will open to reveal the new home of the fourth most popular major at Occidental. Little paper letters on a bulletin board affirm to visitors that they are in the right place: “PSYCHOLOGY.” Just above the first three letters is a tiny cutout of the Gangnam-styling rapper PSY.
Besides that bit of humor, the psychology floor looks pretty clean and tidy. Professors have just moved in and are now the first occupants of the newly designed hall. With the extra room, the psychology department can do more of what it does best: experiments.
The department often runs several projects at the same time, and professors and students are constantly researching. The basement of Swan unearth a winding corridor of lab rooms and study spaces where empirical studies take place in the ever growing exploration of human thought and behavior. Psychology professor Brian Kim, for example, will be running a study next spring that experiments with different types of personality tests. Not only will students assist with the experiment, they will also be needed as test subjects, he explained.
Kim oversees the Organizational Psychology Lab, which recently began an investigation on what sort of qualities are attractive in job applications. In the Developmental Psychology lab, directed by Professor Andrea Hopmeyer, students and faculty study adolescent behavior, including peer relationships and the effects of using Facebook at a young age.
Department chair Anne Schell’s Psycho-physiology Lab explores emotions and irrational behavior.
“I have a project going on about emotional learning, looking at how we respond to different stimuli,” Schell said. “It’s not that we have the instinctive tendency to fear certain things, but that it is instinctively easier for us to learn to fear certain kinds of things, like spiders and snakes for instance.”
Professor Andrew Shtulman is the head of another one of these labs. As described on its website, the enigmatically-named Thinking Lab explores human conceptualizations and how they constitute our beliefs, attitudes and theories. Shtulman currently oversees two projects: one looking at how people conceptualize God and one looking at how people collaboratively solve problems and to what extent their prior knowledge influences the nature of that collaboration.
Shtulman explained that students can do directed research for credit as early as Psychology 295, and several opportunities are available for students who want to try out their own experiments. In Psychology 497, students can design their own empirical studies with the assistance of faculty.
“Sometimes the independent projects end up really flourishing and students use that as a basis for applying to graduate school,” Shtulman said. ”Sometimes they flounder miserably. The same thing goes for directed research; sometimes the faculty ideas don’t go anywhere, sometimes it’s a success and the students really love it. I have been really surprised with the extent to which directed research has shaped student interest. I think just being involved with the project and getting into the literature and analyzing the data really got them into the subject.”
Students who are not intending to major in psychology often take courses in the department anyway, and they can also participate in studies. The online website Sona Systems allows students to find and participate in experiments. Students may find themselves putting golf balls or sitting in rooms where they are asked to match smells with colors, but either way they will be contributing to research and, more often than not, receiving credit in the process.
Psychology majors have countless opportunities to gain lab experience in their courses.
“I think our students get more hands-on preparation for grad school,” Schell said. “I’ve collaborated on research with faculty at [University of California at Los Angeles] and [University of Southern California], and most of the people they have working with them are graduate students. A professor at USC will have fewer undergraduates working with him than would someone at Occidental. Students at Occidental get opportunities that graduates get at major universities.”
Students have become increasingly aware of the benefits of having research experience under their belts as undergraduates.
“When I first arrived at Oxy, five and half years ago, I actively had to go find people to help with my studies,” Shtulman said. “No one would come to me. Now, too many people come to me. The demand has changed so much in five years.”
But hands-on experiments have long been a part of the psychology program. The Rat Lab, for example, has been around for over 25 years. The lab’s current director, Professor Clinton Chapman, works with the colony of albino Sprague Dawley rats almost as often as he teaches class.
The Rat Lab is actually located in the same building that it has always been, right next to the Jack Kemp stadium. It would be impossible to tell what goes on in the building from the outside. The few windows surrounding the building are covered with aluminum, and the doors are unmarked.
Walking inside feels like stepping into a time machine. In contrast with the neat, refurbished Swan Hall, the Rat Lab almost looks like a garage. There are piles of miscellaneous junk on the floor — old casette players, wires and PVC pipes.
“This is our system for analyzing data,” Chapman said, pointing to an old Dell computer.
But the Rat Lab is arguably where some of the most interesting projects at Occidental happen. Next to a pile of broken Commodore 64s stands a testing apparatus where rats are put into a box and tested for reactions to a very light noise.
“Most of our experiments at the Rat Lab test the effects of anxiety and its impacts on eating,” Chapman said. “Rats are easy to experiment on because they can be selectively bred. Just like you have different breeds of dogs, like Labradors and Huskies, you can breed rats to have particular traits. So our rats are bred to either like sweets, or to not prefer sweet things. Then we put them in different situations to test their anxiety.”
The noise-reaction apparatus allows experimenters to see the varying response-levels of rats, depending on what they like to eat. The rats that craved sweets, Chapman explained, will generally overreact to stimuli.
The experiments, of course, have implications for human behavior.
“These experiments deal with basic biology, and how eating affects the nervous system,” Chapman said. “Our findings help improve drugs used by humans, like Valium [used to reduce stress].”
Along the way to the other cage rooms are shelves of various chemicals and, most recognizably, packets of Kool-Aid. Perfect for rats with a sweet tooth.
A cacophony of squeaking can be heard from outside the door of the first room. Inside, cages hold rats that have recently given birth. Each mother is surrounded by a dozen little pink pups. The blind, quivering young will grow up to be the next generation of test subjects.
In the next room, each rat has a cage to itself. About half of the cages were marked with the word “DRUG.”
“The drug is caffeine,” Chapman said. “In this experiment we’re testing how caffeine influences anxiety levels.”
The room next door was empty except for a simple white box on the floor, about five feet wide. A small Lego structure rested in the center. Rats are placed into the box and allowed to roam free.
“Rats naturally run to the walls to protect themselves, because in the wild they’re prey to a lot of animals,” Chapman said. “The Lego blocks are there to see if rats will investigate it out of curiosity.”
Lastly is a student-led project — a small Y-maze. No longer than three feet, the hand-constructed maze allows rats to choose one of two paths. The path on the right contains food for the first few trials, and the rats will learn to choose that path each time. Then, the food is switched to the left path, and students record how many times it took the rats to learn to switch directions.
Student-led research, such as the Y-maze, has exploded in popularity in the past few years, and the psychology department is working to accommodate the increasing demand. Research experience for undergraduates often gives students an edge when pursuing further into the field of psychology.
“We’re contributing people who become counselors, people who become clinical psychologists, people who get their Master’s in public health, in social work,” Schell said. “We’re contributing a lot of professionals.”
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