Summer Undergraduate Research Grants Pay Students to Advance Science

December 15, 2020
By: Kristen O'Reilly

In a normal summer, psychology major Anna Grady ’21 would have worked at a retail job to earn money for living and educational expenses for the fall semester. Instead, this summer she was paid to conduct hands-on research investigating memory in children, work that ultimately led to a poster presentation at the New England Psychology Association Annual Conference this October.

Grady’s project was one of three funded through the Summer Undergraduate Research Grant (SURG) program, a new endeavor that is allowing Worcester State students to advance science through paid research positions over the summer. SURG was made possible thanks a generous bequest from Lt. Col. James F. Sheehan ’55.

“This opportunity came at a great time because my usual summer job was eliminated due to the pandemic,” says Grady. “It gave me the freedom to focus on a project that I started as an independent study in the spring semester.”

Grady worked with Nicole Rosa, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, to investigate the concept of self-referencing, which theorizes you remember information better if you can connect it to yourself in some way.

“We’ve found this fairly consistent across age groups, from college students to older adults, even those who suffer from dementia or have cognitive loss,” says Rosa. “And it extends to people we are close to.” For instance, you might remember something you connect to your mother.

Less research on the topic has been done with children, Rosa says. Her ongoing study usually involved working face to face with subjects, who would look at a series of photos. During the spring semester, Grady worked on adapting the protocol to an online format, piloting the research on college students and working out the glitches.

Grady then spent the summer recruiting more than 40 children between the ages of 10 and 14—after getting permission from their parents—and working with them over Zoom to complete the memory exercise. “It was like a game for the kids. They thought it was fun,” she says.

The project was particularly appropriate for Grady because, while she doesn’t have a solid career direction yet, she knows she wants to work with children. For the fall semester, she has an internship with at-risk kids at the RFK Children’s Action Corp, and she hopes to investigate other aspects of psychology through a spring internship.

For Rosa, without funding from SURG, her research study would have come to a halt this summer.

“Many students depend on summer jobs to fund their education. Because I was able to pay her, Anna could commit more time to the project. In the past, I’ve had students help me who are unfunded, but the research went to the bottom of the priority list,” says Rosa. And being able to present the findings at the New England Psychology Association Annual Conference will look great on Grady’s graduate school applications, if she goes in that direction.

In the other two SURG projects, Megan Mattox ’20 worked with Professor Mariana Calle, Ph.D., of health sciences to create a survey to assess the food environment and dietary and exercise patterns of

Worcester State students; and Nhu Le ’23 and Emily Doran ’21 worked with Assistant Professor Weichu Xu, Ph.D., of chemistry on Sterification Study Toward the Total Synthesis of Thielavin T.

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