Every year, roughly 800 University of Michigan students graduate with bachelor’s degrees in psychology or BCN (Biopsychology, Cognition and Neuroscience). Of that accomplished group, approximately 50 are students who have taken a significant intellectual leap, completing original psychology research and writing an honors thesis.
“Conducting an honors thesis in psychology is empowering,” affirms Priti Shah, the director of psychology’s honors program. “Students are able to take advantage of the many tools of psychology, including animal studies, functional neuroimaging work, questionnaires, behavioral studies, and secondary data analysis, to answer an unresolved scientific question.”
Since the department began keeping records in 1951, the Psychology Department has produced more than 1700 honors students, and more psychology students complete honor theses than students in any other LSA department. Recent thesis titles have included Cognitive Deficits Associated with Anticholinergic Medications in Veterans at the Ann Arbor Veterans Affairs Hospital (Lindsey Harik), Impacts of Multiple Marginality for South Asian Americans’ Mental Health (Priyanka Shanmugasundaram), and Learning Differences in Cellphone Users: Understanding Learning Outcomes and Eye Patterns Using Mobile Eye Tracking (Aric Gaunt). Honors graduates go on to careers in industry, academia, mental health, medicine, and law, among many other fields.
Regardless of their career choices, the work that honors students complete provides an excellent professional foundation. They learn technical skills, observe how the tools of psychological, brain, and cognitive science can answer questions of basic scientific or practical value, establish important professional relationships, hone their writing, and get a taste of whether a research career is right for them. “My own experience as an honors student many years ago taught me so much—about how to be a scientist, about how to be a good mentor, and about what a research career would look like,” Shah recalls.
Students generally apply for the honors program during the summer before their senior year. They must have a 3.4 overall GPA, as well as experience in lab research. Before they apply, they identify and get approval from a research mentor with whom they’d like to work. Once accepted, they undertake a two-semester hands-on research project that might involve laboratory work, surveys, qualitative research, and/or secondary analysis. They also take required methods courses and meet with their thesis cohort for workshops and seminars. To complete the program, they write a thesis based on their own research and present a poster at the Psychology Department’s Research Forum in April. Earning honors requires the approval of three faculty members, including their mentor.
Honors mentors are a critical part of the honors program, building relationships with the students and guiding them through the process. Since the 2014-15 academic year, 153 different faculty members have served as mentors. The majority have been from psychology, but faculty from related fields, like social work, neuroscience, psychiatry, and the Medical School, have also served as mentors. Graduate students also serve as co-mentors, often working side-by-side with honors students in the lab, and providing a valuable role model for the next steps of the academic career path.
Assistant Professor Natalie Tronson regularly mentors honors students, and finds the experience quite rewarding. “They’re energetic, they’re enthusiastic, they’re fun, and there’s a good sense of energy and wonder; sometimes we forget about that in the lab when things are frustrating.” She notes that because honors students have some research experience under their belts when they begin the process and are familiar with lab techniques and the projects, they are able to truly contribute to her ongoing projects. For Tronson, the highlight of mentoring is seeing the way the project comes together and the way a student’s confidence and ownership of the research grows over the course of the year.
Associate Professor Ashley Gearhardt was a psychology undergraduate at Michigan and mentors students to give a new generation of students the kind of guidance that she enjoyed. “One thing I try to emphasize to students is that the important part of this experience is not whether you have statistically significant results. It is about being able to engage with scientific questions and learn how to start answering them.” She particularly enjoys the opportunity, as a mentor, to see students fall in love with the work: “I see students get bit by the research bug and they are passionate about doing good scientific work and are extremely curious to know the answers to the questions they have set.”
There is great diversity among Michigan’s psychology honors students and the research they pursue, but what they all have in common is a powerful intellectual drive and curiosity and the perseverance to reach their goals.
Chanelle Davis, a senior from Ecorse, Michigan, came to the university already fascinated with psychology. Davis’ interest in research began in her freshman year, when she was part of the Michigan Research Community living learning program and worked on an Institute for Social Research project looking at behavioral adaptations to outbreaks of violence among children in Peru. Davis later learned about Stephanie Rowley’s work on African American families, children, and racial socialization, and it felt like an ideal fit given her second major in African American studies.
While working in Rowley’s lab, Davis was taking a course on mass incarceration and became interested in how mass incarceration affects children. This led to the research question proposed for her thesis: Do boys of incarcerated fathers exhibit less aggressive behavior and fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression if they have strong racial pride? Davis is investigating this question using data collected as part of the National Survey of American Life.
For Davis, the highlight of being part of the honors program has been the autonomy it has given her over her work. Not only is she able to do research, she has been able to pursue a research question that she is passionate about, not simply undertake research on someone else’s project.
Kate Gasparrini, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2010, is well into a career in mental health that has been considerably enhanced by her experience in the psychology honors program.
In her thesis research with Professor Catherine Lord, Gasparrini focused on the grammatical errors that children with autism make. He work involved playing with 2-5 year old autistic children, coding their language errors and comparing them to the language of typically developing kids. She recalls that the honors process had a significant impact on her sense of independence, especially undertaking such a project on her own. “I got to create that myself and I think that helps you develop very good skills, beyond critical thinking and writing skills.”
After graduating, Gasparrini spent two years with AmeriCorps in Boston, working at Peace First. She also spent a year in Argentina before earning a master’s of social work at Boston College. Gasparrini now works at a community health center in Boston, providing outpatient therapy to children, teens, and adults struggling with mental health issues, and psychosocial stressors like poverty and housing and immigration issues. Gasparrini is still drawn to research, and hopes to expand that part of her work. “For me—testing an idea, collecting data, figuring out how a new intervention is working or not working—that’s very important for social work. My experience in the honors program certainly helped me have that framework.”
Bob Pachella (BS 1966) has the unusual distinction of having been both an honors student and an honors mentor at Michigan, earning his undergraduate degree at Michigan and then returning as a faculty member after finishing his doctorate.
It was the need for a job that brought Pachella to both psychology and the honors program. He had a variety of academic interests, but took a job as a research assistant at the Human Performance Center during his sophomore year. After spending so much time with psychology faculty and graduate students, when it came time to declare a major, psychology seemed like the thing to do. “It was also a very exciting time for psychology,” he recalls. “What is now called cognitive psychology was just beginning to emerge and there was a great deal of enthusiasm about the work that was being done.” Further, with so much lab experience under his belt, pursuing honors seemed like a natural step.
Pachella’s thesis on the speed-accuracy tradeoff in information processing under the direction of Paul Fitts and Richard Pew had quite an impact. It was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and he won the department’s Pillsbury Prize, awarded annually in recognition of outstanding research performance. The thesis was also so advanced, Pachella notes, that it would have been the equivalent of a dissertation at another institution and propelled him to graduate school at Johns Hopkins and work undertaking psychology research for the army. “I’d already established myself as one of the people who knew that particular specialized kind of problem, and it really set me up for my professional career.”
After he finished his doctorate, Pachella returned to Michigan as a faculty member. Returning to Michigan gave Pachella the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of his advisors and mentor honors students, a job he found extremely rewarding. “The highlight of working with honors students is you’re working with these incredibly bright and ambitious students,” who, he asserts, “are as good as the honors students you’d find at any university in the country.”
Each of these bright and ambitious psychology honors students benefits from participating in a program that provides the best elements of a University of Michigan education. It gives them the opportunity to take risks, challenge themselves, build rich relationships with faculty members and graduate students, hone their skills, and even create new knowledge, all within the supportive framework of the undergraduate experience. As Pachella describes it, “Michigan provides this incredible set of resources and then the honors program allows the channeling of it in very productive ways.” It gives this select group of students a vital foundation from which they can establish rewarding careers and have a meaningful impact on the field of psychology.