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Advancing Research Efforts, Providing Experience to Undergraduates

September 01, 2016
CNG group
Anderson Gomez Murcia, Hilary Kee, and Chisom Gloria Nwaoha worked on campus this summer with the Cognitive Neuroscience Group.

“This was my first opportunity to get involved in research,” said Chisom Gloria Nwaoha, one of three undergraduate students who presented their research experiences to a group of MGH Institute faculty and graduate students in early August.

The undergraduates from Suffolk University, Pine Manor College, and Boston University had just completed an immersive eight-week program offered by the Cognitive Neuroscience Group (CNG), a new collaborative effort sponsored by the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Dean’s Office. 

“Our goal was to offer research training and experience to undergrads that otherwise might not have this opportunity,” said Associate Professor Yael Arbel. She and two other faculty in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, Associate Professor Lauryn Zipse and Assistant Professor Sofia Vallila Rohter, believe the program could have a profound impact on students’ futures. “Hands-on research is essential in the health professions,” explained Dr. Arbel. “Graduate programs and employers value research experience, so this offers these undergraduates the kind of knowledge that will help them once they graduate.

The three faculty members have been working together for almost a year, recognizing how their common research interests as speech-language pathologists (SLP) was a good fit. “All three of us use behavioral and neuroscience methods to explore learning, language, and cognition,” said Dr. Zipse. “We are excited about each other’s shared research interests.”

Drs. Arbel, Vallila Rohter, and Zipse collaborate on projects concerning the relationship between learning ability, other cognitive factors, and language ability in various clinical populations such as adults with aphasia and children with language learning problems. Their work addresses the relationship between language and non-verbal cognition, and how abilities such as attention, memory, and learning affect language.

The research group hosts meetings that are jointly attended by faculty and SLP students who are writing a master’s thesis, where they discuss the best way to shed light on a particular line of inquiry. “We are a sounding board for each other,” said Dr. Vallila Rohter, adding that they have begun collaborating on research projects. “Because I have colleagues who can help me ask the right questions and plan my research, I feel empowered to take on bigger, more ambitious projects.”

Gaining a Wealth of Experience

For 20 hours a week for two months this summer, the undergraduate students provided research assistance, helped design experiments, and had a crash course in Excel, which they used to organize and analyze large batches of data. They also attended CNG meetings, faculty and graduate student presentations, and learned how to collect eye movement data using an Eye Tracking system use research tools like Event-Related Potential that measures electrical activity in the brain.

“I didn’t realize how much critical thinking is required in research, or how fulfilling that can be,” said Hilary Kee, who is finishing up her pre-medical requirements at Pine Manor. “I’m much more aware of the factors that affect cognition and learning,” added Anderson Gomez Murcia, who is studying human physiology at BU.

“We created enough structure to ensure the students would have basic research skills,” noted Vallila Rohter, “but allowed enough time so they could figure a lot of things out for themselves.”

The pilot program is the first of its kind at the Institute, and part of a long-range plan to offer research opportunities to a wide array of undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds. “We targeted under-represented  students and students at smaller colleges because these undergraduates typically don’t have access to many  research programs,” explained Dr. Zipse, adding they plan to apply for funding to the National Science Foundation and continue the program next summer and beyond.

One of the unexpected benefits of the program was the care and effort SLP graduate students put into describing their research to these undergraduate students. “We originally thought our students would simply be delegating tasks, but the experience really changed the way they thought about their work,” said Arbel. “Being in a mentoring role made our students think more clearly about the whole research process.” 

SLP student Annette Mitko agrees. “It was really helpful to have to break things down. I had to really understand my research well enough so that I could explain what I was doing and not rely on jargon.”

By Joanne Barker