Month: June 2019

Chapter One: Remembering it’s the Beginning

My day-to-day work on my project mainly consists of writing. I like to look at some art and have been revisiting YA books in order to get inspired, but mainly I just try to write for as long as I can. I started this summer outlining the plot and developing the world, and quickly moved into writing it all out in a first draft. It’s a lot more difficult than I had originally expected, because I’ve only really written short stories and poems, rather than longer works. I also have an odd amount of pause when writing it, wondering if it is on the right track or if it dawdles too much on scenes that don’t need to be there.

But one day, needing a break from writing and worrying, I took out my sketchbook and started doodling, just going with wherever my mind took me. I didn’t really know what I was actually drawing until a third of the way through, which normally I don’t do. Typically, I like to have an image in mind and then try to recreate that on paper. But I was pretty proud of the picture I had ended up with and it turned out better than a lot of my other pictures that I had agonized over getting right.

I then realized that I should take that mindset with me more when I’m writing. It’s easier for me to trust where I’m going with a drawing because I get to the end product faster, and can see where it’s headed more clearly while working on it. Sometimes when writing I get caught up in the more minor details and I get nervous that I’m not making it interesting enough or am not headed in the right direction in terms of people understanding or liking it.

So in terms of an update, I’ve been working on trusting my instincts a bit more and remembering to have fun with it. It’s not going to be perfect as soon as I write it and it is going to be a long time before it’s finished, but I know I will have an end product to be proud of.  

Why do you do the things you do?

Last week my best friend from middle school visited me from California. She asked me what I am doing for the summer. I asked her: “Do you want a long version or a short version?” 

When it comes to my majors, I am notoriously bad for controlling the length of my answer. As an introvert who can go through the day without talking to anyone and still be happy, I often surprise myself when it comes to topics related to cognitive science and philosophy. I can keep talking and talking and talking and talking, and maybe even assign some readings: “hey if you’re interested in this I happen to know a couple of papers that you might be interested in.”

One of my biggest hobbies right now is writing popular sciences article related to cognitive science: I got to read some very interesting papers that I don’t have the opportunity to read because of their irrelevance to my own research; I can write in Chinese, which is my native language and suffer less from the grammar issues; the most important thing is that I get to share my excitement about my majors with thousands and thousands of people in China. Many of them may have not yet heard of the major at all. To a certain degree, it almost feels like a responsibility for me to spread what I’ve learned in a different language.

My friend dictated a short answer. So I answered succinctly: “Doing research and writing.”

In the past weeks I do have some noticeable progress in my dual-projects. In terms of my experiment, I am very close to having a polished version of the visual stimuli. In terms of my philosophy project, I drafted an outline and I’ve been working on writing out the outline.  Even though I’m still at the beginning of my projects, I already started to appreciate the fact that I chose this approach. When I first started reading, I plan to alternate my daily reading between two projects: if I read for my paradigms paper today, I will read for my experiment tomorrow. But later on I realized that for a lot of papers I read, they actually provide important insights for both projects. In addition, personally I just found it extremely reassuring when I understood the theoretical underpinning behind the paradigms we use. 

“What is cognitive science?”

”Why is cognitive science ‘science’?”

“Why do you do the things you do?”

As fascinating as my major is, I am often haunted by the three questions above. The last one seems to be the easiest one to tackle but it is also the worst one that haunted me the most. Whenever I am running an experiment, I ask myself this question but never find a truly satisfying answer through the lens of empirical articles. So hopefully during the process of my thesis I can have a better answer to, at least, the last question. 

Slow, but Steady!

One thing I have learned from my previous research experience is that progress almost always takes longer than you expect it to. At the start of the summer, I was hoping to have already begun piloting by this week. Instead, I am still flushing out some aspects of the code I will use to run my experiment.

The experiment I am creating is run on a laptop. It shows participants various stimuli in different regions of the screen, prompts them to press keys as responses, and then records their response time and accuracy. The response times collected can then be used as indicators for the location and sensitivity of brain regions. This exciting paradigm, introduced to me by Dr. Behrmann’s lab, allows an experimenter to estimate the location of brain regions on each side of the brain without using expensive brain-imaging technologies (like fMRI scans).

As a beginner programmer, there was a large learning curve I needed to overcome in order to successfully code my experiment. I became aware very quickly that to tackle this daunting task, I would need to use all of the resources available to me. I began by reading online help-guides to get myself familiar with the basics of the program. Next, a graduate student in Dr. Behrmann’s lab was kind enough to spend his valuable time helping me one-on-one. Lastly, I was lucky enough to gain access to existing codes from our lab as well as partnering labs which I could use to build-off of.

Despite things taking a bit longer than I expected, I feel I am making good progress. My programming abilities have greatly improved, and this new skill will likely come in handy for future studies. I am thankful to have had the luxury of time which has allowed me to spend longer examining and understanding the codes I am working with.

I am now very close to beginning piloting, and I will hopefully have a few lab members take the experiment later this week! I plan to keep working at this steady pace and enjoying the feeling of consistent progress, even if it advances a bit slower than I expected.

Starting Out and Getting Good at Googling

I’ve never been particularly great about dealing with uncertainty, and maybe this is why I was drawn to Social and Decision Sciences at CMU. I’ve enjoyed taking classes that deal with human intelligence and decision analysis, but for someone majoring in Policy and Management with an additional major in Decision Science, one would think that I’d be comfortable and adept at making large decisions by now. This is not the case. However, choosing to pursue senior thesis was one of the easiest decisions of my life, even though I knew that doing so meant accepting this great heaping pile of open-ended questions tied up with a string.

I’m conducting research on the psychology of internet search. How do we go about finding information online? Nowadays, it seems we hold all the information in the world at our fingertips. Access to online search engines allows us to navigate the overload of information that exists on the internet, but what makes some people better at searching than others? What makes certain strategies better than others? This project presents a novel method for evaluating internet search ability. Using psychometric models, I aim to develop a model for understanding disparities between individuals in their ability to search for information online. The goal of this project is to develop an assessment instrument to test people’s ability to search effectively and efficiently and to recommend strategies to improve information search.

I’m currently in the process of obtaining IRB approval for my study. Since my thesis involves research on human subjects, the Institutional Review Board has to review my study approve it before I can go about collecting any data. Other than that, I’ve mainly been focusing on the lit review: finding and reading as many articles as I can to understand the current state of this field of study.

I had some pre-project jitters at the start of the summer. Starting any large task can difficult, but I’ve never attempted a project this big on my own before. I’m worried about floundering or burning out before it’s through. I feel as though I have a mountain to climb, but even though I’m nervous about the challenge, I’m excited to start on this journey. It’s new and daunting but now is the time to tackle it. This is an opportunity I’ve been waiting for, so here’s to a summer of new challenges and opportunities for exploration. Let’s go.

Introductions

Doing this senior thesis is something that I’m both very excited for and nervous for — I’ve never really been able to do a project that allows me to do research while connecting my own personal experiences to that research.

Before I go on to elaborating on my project, I’ll introduce myself. I’m a rising senior majoring in psychology (with a concentration in social psychology) and professional writing — and minoring in Human Computer Interaction. I enjoy reading books, writing, watching Korean dramas/shows, and listening to Korean music. As a Korean-American student, being Korean/being Asian has been quite central to my identity and has shaped the majority of the experiences that I had while growing up in the United States.

Because I am Korean/Asian (and because I live in Missouri, where there aren’t too many other Asian people), I (and my other Asian friends) experienced a lot of racism growing up, and therefore, had a lot of pent up anger/frustration and was ashamed of my identity as an Asian. While my friends and I complained to the administration, the school administration did not really take the issue seriously, as did the parents of the racist students (one of the parents of the racist students, who was a part of the PTO, said that her daughter’s racism was just a result of “girls being girls”). Because of this, I felt alone and felt like I had to find another way to release the anger that I felt as a result of the racism that I experienced. I found solace through writing — and this helped me to find my own voice. I then started to seek  out others who wrote about similar experiences as I did and used writing as a way to express themselves. Because of this, I found many different Asian-American writers who helped me to feel like I had a community of individuals who shared my experiences.

I didn’t discover pride for my identity and Asian-American writers on my own, however. In middle school, which was when I experienced the most racism at school, my English teacher and Social Studies teacher at the time, played a major part in helping me to find pride for my race/ethnicity and finding Asian-American writers who wrote about characters that had very similar experiences to me. They went as far as to letting my friends and I do our own project about Asian-American racism and the Asian-American experience during the Civil Rights unit — and let us make our own lessons to present to the class about Korea. In high school, too, while we did not read books written by Asian-American writers in my English classes, my junior-year English teacher helped me to discover writers like Amy Tan, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Chang-Rae Lee. Chang-Rae Lee’s novel, Native Speaker, spoke to me the most — as the main character of the novel is a Korean-American, trying to find his identity both as a Korean and an American in America. To sum up, these experiences helped me to embrace my identity as an Asian-American/Korean-American and helped me to realize that seeing representations of others who were like me/shared my experiences was so important to my own educational experience.

To connect the above paragraphs to my project, my project essentially explores how my race and ethnicity affected my experiences as a student in the United States’ educational system. Specifically, I want to look at representation of Asian-American literature/characters in the English courses in the American school system as well as the way in which Asian-American writers write about Asian-American characters in their novels. At the end of this project, I hope to answer the question: Why is it important to have diversity and representation in the education system — and how does this have an effect on students?

Well Begun is Half Done

The summer research has started for several weeks. I’m extremely busy every day, reading over different papers related to my honor thesis, attempting to put my various thoughts and hypotheses into words, running experiments with other research assistants in the lab, and preparing for the standardized exam, GRE, as preparation for my graduate school application.

First a little bit about myself. I’m a rising senior double majoring in psychology and statistics. I’m particularly interested in the fields of social psychology and health psychology. I want to learn more about what factors may affect the quality and length of close relationships such as marriage and friendship; how may close relationships influence individuals’ physical and mental health; also, how can people overcome life challenges and function to their full potential with help and support from close relationships. I have already worked in the CMU relationships lab for more than one year. As a research assistant, I participate in a large research project called MATES study, which is a longitudinal follow-up study with a large sample of community couples who began participation in the study as newlyweds over 12 years ago. The study is mainly aimed to understand how close relationships develop and change over time, and how close relationships can facilitate or hinder thriving. Since the MATES study is highly related to my research interest, I decide to use part of the data from the ongoing study to start my own honor thesis research project—the predictors and direct consequences of support seeking in close relationships.

During my one-year work in the lab, I realize that seeking for support is as important as providing support in close relationships, especially marriage. Support seekers can cultivate effective support in their close relationships by openly expressing their worries and concerns, clearing describing the type of support, either instrumental or emotional as needed, and positively responding to their partners’ provision of comfort or reassurance. Actively seeking for support and appropriately expressing own needs can make it more likely for people to not only get more support from their partners, but also gain support that matches their needs more closely. While there’s not much research available on support-seeking, in my honors study, I wish to explore different predictors of support-seeking behavior when people are talking about life stressors and are in clear need of social support; and to understand the direct effects of support-seeking behavior — whether actively asking for support in close relationships will lead to higher relationship satisfaction, better physical and mental health outcomes.

Until now, I have done some literature review and I have drafted a theoretical rationale, specifically explaining the research background and theoretical framework underlying my project. Moreover, except for continuing running experiments and collecting data, I’m trying to revise a behavioral coding system for the stress discussion that I need to analyze for the study. There are still a lot of things waiting for me to explore. Wish that I have more interesting stories to share with you in the next post!

The Prologue

She sits at her desk, leg shaking courtesy of the empty Starbucks cup that rests next to her laptop. Her pencil scrapes against paper, crossing out the “great” thought she had at 2:00 a.m. that day. The cursor on the Word document in front of her blinks expectantly, but she cannot find the words to give it.

This is me. A creative writing major with minors in animation and special effects as well as film and media studies. I have been writing stories since I learned how to craft a sentence, and enjoy seeing what I can come up with. My project is the development of a YA novel in the dystopian, fantasy genre. In particular, I aim to explore the depiction of sibling relationships, as such works frequently feature the same heteromantic dynamics.

Having the time to work on my novel is simultaneously amazing and terrifying. I’m finally doing what I set out to do since before even coming to Carnegie Mellon, and yet I’m so scared. What if my ideas aren’t good enough? What if I’m wasting my time and should’ve tried to get a “practical” internship like some have suggested to me? What if my goal of writing this book and becoming an author is nothing more than a fantasy?

I don’t actually have answers to those questions. But this opportunity allows me to pursue my passion and create something I believe in. And I look forward to seeing where it takes me.

So I guess this is the official starting point?

To be honest I don’t even understand why I laughed so hard on this figure…

Today I’m turning 21. I am not exciting as I thought I would be. But I think this is a good thing. It means daily life is exciting enough for me. Over our weekly FaceTime chat my mom and I briefly talked about my birthday. She asked me what I want for birthday. I thought for a while and told her sincerely, nothing, mom, honestly nothing. 

“Are you sure?” My mom asked again. 

“yeah I am sure.” I confirmed. I think I am genuinely happy with my life. 

It might sound cheesy but I am saying it any way: I love working on my honor thesis. I love the topic so much that I can’t think of a better way to spend my summer, or the 21st year of my life, or even the rest of life — yes, I am applying to graduate school to work in this area, the intersection between cognitive psychology and philosophy. I actually want to work on the same cohort of topics: language development, cognitive development, the interaction between perceptual and conceptual systems. 

Oh wait, a little bit about myself: I am a rising senior studying cognitive science and philosophy. I am from Beijing, China. Before came to CMU I always thought I would be a writer or poet or something like that. But then I found out that I am more interested in how language is possible at all, i.e., how little baby learns language. So I switched gear and decided to (hopefully) become a scientist. In my spare time I am passionate about writing popular science, and, FOOOOOOOOOOOOOD!!!!! (Ask me for restaurant recommendations!)

Last semester before winter break, I talked with my two advisors, asking whether they would be interested in advising me to do an “interdisciplinary” project. Well I put interdisciplinary in quote because I am never fully convinced by the disciplinary boundary between philosophy and cognitive science. I think the debates in cognitive science nowadays are the same debates that have been going on for the past centuries in philosophy of mind. And we also need to consider the fact that even science itself stemmed from philosophy. Honestly, I don’t think science can go anywhere at all without the guidance of philosophical analysis…so the only reason I called it “interdisciplinary” is because I have two advisors, and I am going to write two things for my thesis package: 

  1. Empirical work: your classic APA style report paper on an experiment I am going to conduct in Infant Cognition Lab. 
  2. Philosophical work: a review paper I am going to write on the paradigm used in my experiment.

I know this is technically two things. Two intertwined, closely related things are still two things. On the one hand, I am confident. I started to work with infants in my freshman summer. I received a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship last year to work on speech perception with infants. By now I have received five Small Undergraduate Research Grants from URO. And I have been reading and reading and reading and reading… And I know I want to do this, and I believe that I can. I intentionally register for less classes next semester to leave enough time to work on this project.

But on the other hand, I am worried. Deep down in me there is always this little devil screaming: you’re not smart enough, you probably won’t even finish one thing, HOW DARE YOU CHOOSE TO DO TWO! HOW DARE YOU TO WANT TO DO RESEARCH!

That devil! I know her. I know her so well. She was the voice with me when I told my mom I am going to Carnegie Mellon University. She was the voice with me when I told my mom I wanted to get a PhD. She was the voice with me when I declared my additional major in Philosophy. She kept telling me that I am not smart enough, that I am not good enough, that I should know my limit. I can’t talk back because in some sense she is right. All my life in school I never excel in standardized tests. I don’t have 4.0 GPA. I am not one of the students who you would expect a perfect score from.  At best I am above average. And the emphasis is on average. Even my above average requires quite a bit of work. 

In order to fight that devil, I came up with a theory. I called it “the theory of ambitious mediocre person”. 

I am a mediocre person but I am also ambitious. My mediocre ambition is that I want to do something with my life. So what can I do? In physics “Work is the product of force and distance.” W = FS. I translate that principle into life. So as a mediocre person I only have mediocre force. If I want to maximize my work, then I need to increase my distance. Distance is the product of velocity and time. As a mediocre person I only have mediocre velocity, so the only option for me is to spend as much time as possible. Start working early and always working. 

For me, I only believe in hard work. I don’t trust subitism. No sudden enlightenment for me. 

I spent my winter break reading, talked with my advisors during the first weeks after I came back.The past spring semester also happened to be the heaviest semester I have ever had. With 60 units and 9 hours of research, I really needed to work hard. So even during spring break when I was in New York City, I locked myself in NYU’s glamorous library writing proposals. I was emailing my graduate student mentor and another philosophy professor for advice. Eventually with so much help from so many people, I submitted my proposal on time. 

I know I’ll need to start preparing for graduate school as I start to work on my thesis. But I also know I can only focus on one thing a time and I hate standardized tests. As a result, I took care of my GRE during the winter break and before summer started I took the TOEFL exam just in case any school I’m applying to may want that. 

Finally, with no standardized tests in my way, I can concentrate on my thesis work. I’ve been reading since the final week. Now I guess this post indicates the official starting point for me. Good. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my summer. 

So, what are you researching?

I am so happy to begin this summer of research! I have been striving towards conducting my own experiment ever since first becoming a research assistant during my freshman year at CMU. Now that this goal of mine has become a reality, I am both nervous and excited to begin the long journey.

First a little about myself, I am a psychology student with a concentration in neuropsychology and a minor in cognitive neuroscience. In other words, I particularly enjoy learning about the biological mechanisms and components of the brain which underlie psychological phenomena.  In particular, I am interested in the development of the visual system and how our brain allows us to see our environments.

For my project, I am studying a specific area of the brain called the visual word form area. The visual word form area (VWFA) is an area of the brain which allows us to recognize written words and plays an essential role in our ability to read. Pretty cool! Lately, I have noticed I struggle to explain my research hypothesis in layman’s terms. My research relates specifically to certain anatomical and connective regions of the brain, and it’s easy for me to slip into field-specific jargon in order to explain my study without even realizing it! Explaining my research to others outside of the psychology field is something I am still learning, but this blog will be a great opportunity for me to practice this important skill.

To conclude my first blog post I will quickly describe what I’ve done so far as well as the next steps I need to take for my project. I have completed my literature review and an experimental protocol (I will describe more about my study’s design in my next blog post). In order to interact with human participants, I received IRB approval and access to the SONA participant pool. Now I am working through lots of MATLAB code to actually create the experimental stimuli which will be presented to the participants. This code will be run on a laptop and show participants various visual stimuli, track their eye movements, and record their responses. I have very little experience with MATLAB, so this is a daunting task for me. Luckily, a graduate student in my lab has been guiding me through this process. Hopefully I will have this code up and running before my next post, but for now I need to get back to work!