Gina Bufton '13 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Works as a Research Assistant in the Cognitive and Affective Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Michigan
The Johnson Grant provided me with the opportunity to pursue a volunteer research position at a Cognitive and Affective Neuropsychology Lab at the University of Michigan with Dr. Patricia Reuter-Lorenz. My main research focus was on working memory in older adults, and I worked closely with other lab members on a study that proposed a training paradigm to help improve older adults' performance on working memory tasks.
As I arrived in Ann Arbor after a ten-hour drive from my home in Maryland, I was filled with both excitement and concern. I was very much looking forward to the research opportunities that a large university like Michigan could offer, but I was also nervous that I had embarked on summer project that would prove overwhelming, especially in a new place where I knew no one.
Despite my apprehension, I settled in over the weekend and started my first day in the lab on Monday morning. Dr. Patti Reuter-Lorenz, the laboratory director, was incredibly welcoming and introduced me to the graduate students who worked in her lab, as well as many students and researchers down the hall in Dr. John Jonides's Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab. As I would learn to appreciate, the psychology department at Michigan is inspiringly collaborative, and many of the labs share research interests and graduate students.
Even on that first day, I learned a very valuable lesson that I'm sure will serve me well through the years with a career in psychology: Beware the IRB. The IRB (Institutional Review Board) is an ethical committee of people from the university and greater community who review, oversee and approve research projects involving human subjects. Although our project, a pilot grant, was fairly straightforward, there was a slight change made to the payment benefits for the participants right before my arrival. I was assured that the change would take no more than a few days to receive approval--no big deal. Fast-forward a few weeks: still no approval. Actually, it wasn't until the fateful day of July 20th that we were actually given the go-ahead.
In the meantime, I started acquainting myself with background research that laid the foundation and direction for our project. I gathered any experimental research or literature reviews that seemed relevant, and began working on a paper that summarized the theoretical framework behind the pilot grant. I also attended many different labs' meetings on a weekly basis to familiarize myself with the general dynamic of graduate school life, and I learned so much more than I expected.
In fact, my favorite lab meetings were those of a Neuromotor Behavior Laboratory, even though I had absolutely no knowledge or interest in that domain of research beforehand. In one meeting, Dr. Seidler gave a presentation about the nature of expertise, child prodigies and gifted individuals that was absolutely phenomenal. I was also able to attend a journal club with some members of her lab that was focused on Parkinson's disease. It gave me insight into the cognitive processes behind the condition and treatment options that I would have never known otherwise (special thanks to Post-Doc fellow Nathaniel Miller).
Once my research project was actually approved, I was faced with the task of recruitment. Out of 120 older adults that I called, left messages for, or talked to for much longer than expected, I finally reached the desired quota of six participants after a few days. In these calls, I had to administer a health questionnaire and a cognitive ability measure to ensure that we recruited healthy, mentally capable older adults for our study to help ensure valid data collection. I definitely learned the value of patience, thoroughness and persistence in this process, and I am grateful to all of the lab members that fielded calls and messages when I wasn't there.
During the first day of training, I administered a battery of cognitive tests to establish a baseline measure of initial cognitive ability for the participants. In the following eight sessions (held on eight consecutive days with breaks on the weekends), the participants completed a computer-based working memory training task. The task increased in difficulty as the participants performed better, and their performance scores reflected both the accuracy and difficulty level achieved that day. Finally, the last day they were given some of the original tests to gauge improvement over the course of training. The goal of this procedure was to observe improvements on the participants' performances on the training task itself, as well as gains in the areas assessed in the pre- and post-tests, which would indicate far reaching, rather than task-specific, improvements in cognitive ability.
I am very grateful to the Johnson family for allowing me the opportunity to immerse myself in this research topic, especially due to its relevance and applicability to our growing aging population. I learned so much about working memory and cognitive decline in an academic sense, but I also gained valuable skills that will help me in any lab setting in the future. Special thanks to Dr. Reuter-Lorenz, Dr. Jonides, Alex Hall-Ruiz, Lynn Ossher, Marie Yasuda, Sue Li, Dr. Seidler, and Dr. Edelstein.