Smile, Pass It On

Hands-on experience benefits undergraduate researchers

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Laura Peters is trying to find out if there’s any truth to the saying, “just smile and you’ll feel better.” Through a unique hands-on opportunity offered to undergraduates at Virginia Commonwealth University, she’s putting the pieces together.

Peters, a psychology major, is one of 15 undergraduate students participating in Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, UROP. The program funds a limited number of undergraduate student fellowship awards for projects mentored by VCU faculty and gives students the chance to learn the ins and outs of research firsthand.

“As a psychology major I spent years reading research articles and I understood what they were saying, but I never understood how these articles came to be,” said Peters.

“So, UROP was a really good opportunity to see the other side and a more professional way to go about it,” she said.

Together with mentor Vivian Dzokoto, Ph.D., assistant professor of African-American Studies at VCU, Peters is conducting a two-part cross-cultural study about the facial-feedback hypothesis. According to Peters, the facial-feedback hypothesis states that muscular activity in the face influences emotional experience. So, in other words, if you are smiling or frowning, you will feel a more intense emotion of either positive or negative than when your facial muscles are relaxed, she said.

The first part of the study includes Ghanaians from West Africa, and the second part will include an American sample so that the research group can compare the two cultures.  Peters and Dzokoto have taken the study design a step further to include body awareness, which is being aware of bodily sensations that can influence emotions, stress or overall well-being, sickness and health. Their hypothesis is that people with higher body awareness will feel more intense sensations when their facial muscles are in a particular position rather than if their muscles were just relaxed.

First impressions

While Peters is now excited about the prospect of making research part of her career path, it wasn’t always the case. Prior to learning about the UROP fellowship, Peters participated in a six-week summer course on experimental methods. While the course provided a good foundation and introduction to research, and the opportunity to perform a study – it was fast-paced.

“I left that class feeling that research was very tedious and formulated,” said Peters. “I didn’t see much creativity in it which led me to form a mental block and I decided to stay away from research altogether. I decided to just pursue a masters and that would be the furthest I would go.”

But through the UROP fellowship, she discovered that research takes a lot of creativity, especially when a researcher is met with an obstacle or there are delays in the process.

“Research requires a lot of out-of-the-box thinking, and while it is formulated, it still requires a lot of flexibility to produce a good study,” said Peters, who now plans to one day pursue a Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

A valuable experience

Through UROP, Peters said she gained a huge sense of academic independence and she was able to work at her own pace. She had the opportunity to make a lot of decisions with regards to the study on her own because Dzokoto was in Ghana for eight of the 10 weeks of the fellowship collecting data for the study.

Peters learned a lot from her mentor, who she said “was flexible and fair and had very high expectations and demands, which forced me to push myself further than I ever have in anything before.”

Peters has been able to experience the entire research process, starting with literature review to study design to data analysis. Next, they will begin work on the write-up of the study and prepare it for publication.

Through UROP, Peters said she’s gained the confidence to pursue experiences beyond her comfort zone. “Before the fellowship, if I didn’t feel comfortable doing something, I would just stay away from it entirely,” she said.

After graduation in May, Peters would like to pursue her research further.

“I’ve learned how infinitely interesting research can be – how many different components can go into it, what you can add and take away,” said Peters.

“I consider myself an artistic person – and that’s why initially, I wasn’t sure about the research angle – but now I know I can work on my own masterpiece.”