Inside the Life of an Undergraduate Research Assistant
By Lauren Fournier
I wound up as a research assistant (RA) in the fall of my sophomore year because I thought it a necessary box to check on my medical school applications. I had little interest in chemistry or biology labs (those subjects were, to me, also boxes to check), and settled on a social psychology lab in an effort to build on my major and perhaps my greatest interest: psychology. I did not expect to like research—I knew little about what I would be required to do and was afraid of what I did not know. What if I wasn’t smart enough or scientific enough for it? What if my mentors expected too much of me? But, by the spring of that same year, I had joined a second lab, the Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Lab, and changed my plan of going to medical school to instead pursue a career in research in clinical psychology. I owe this choice, one I consider to be central to my life, to my experience as an RA.
There are several reasons research has been so influential upon me and my future, but it all comes down to a serious desire to learn more, to get answers to questions I am passionate about, and the ultimate goal of using those answers to help people. Every other aspect of research (the actual tasks, the mentors, the lab meetings) revolves around this questioning, this searching for knowledge and answers. Before I started as an RA, I did not think I had this inquisitive nature about me. Sure, I knew I was interested in many areas of psychology and I enjoyed learning about these areas very much, but I did not know I could even think of research questions or hypothesize about their answers. However, when I sat down that fall in my first lab meeting and my mentor presented the research questions to the group, I found myself offering ways to test these questions in experiments, thinking of possible reasons participants may react a certain way, and even thinking of follow-up questions. All thoughts of me being “not scientific” enough left me. The ability to question and hypothesize had always been within me, I just had not realized it. Though this first lab was not focused on clinical research, I owe the realization of and excitement about this investigative outlook on life to my first experiences there. When I narrowed down my interests to clinical psychology, I joined the EAT lab. It was here that I gained the special experience of cultivating skills—such as discussing ideas, forming hypotheses, and testing theories—to use for a topic that is of specific interest to me. Looking back, I realize that one of the greatest joys I receive from being an RA is the privilege of having intellectual, curious conversations with others who are just as passionate about psychology as I am.
My mentors were always at the center of these research discussions, but in my experience have always genuinely listened to what the RAs have to say. I have never felt as though my opinions or comments were brushed aside because I am “just an RA.” Such highly thought of professors and researchers can be intimidating to talk to at first, but it is truly wonderful to feel such brilliant people going out of their way to teach you, and trusting you with the tasks necessary to their research projects and interests. Moreover, working under people who have the degree you wish to eventually have is a huge opportunity to ask questions about graduate school or what working in that field is really like. You can learn so much from lab mentors, and maybe I’ve been exceptionally fortunate, but I’ve never felt my questions were a burden, an annoyance, or unimportant.
The actual tasks one completes as an undergraduate RA in psychology can sometimes seem uninteresting. For example, in my first lab, my first task was to move thousands of files into their proper folders on the lab computer. All of the RAs worked on this for several weeks, and this task was a necessary step before we could run an experiment. In the EAT Lab, much of my time was spent organizing datasets. Though tedious, someone has to do this work and it is actually vital to the success of the research project. When you can keep in mind just how important RAs actually are, and that the projects could not be completed without you and your time, being an RA is extremely rewarding. Moreover, in the midst of a stressful semester, I found working with data or sorting files to be oddly soothing. It was nice to be able to come to lab and do something that was academic and important, but not have to worry about grades and GPAs.
There are also many tasks and experiences that make being an RA fun and interesting. One of the best experiences for me was when the EAT lab toured the treatment center we draw most of our participants from. Though it is certainly tough to see people going through such illness, the tour was very eye-opening and showed me just how applicable our research is. Research findings are constantly being used to create better treatment techniques or add to and enhance current treatment, and to see this in person is something that I will always remember. In fact, when I was working on datasets in lab, I often thought of this tour and considered how special it would be if we could discover something to help even one person. Memories like this remind me just how valuable and important research is, and make being an RA so rewarding. These experiences are what make getting involved in research so much more than something to put on your resume.
Another great part of my experience with the EAT Lab and working with Dr. Levinson was the ability to see a project through many different stages. Most of my time with the EAT Lab was spent on a project called Daily Habits 2 (DH2). For DH2, we sent out questionnaires to participants via an iPhone application four times a day for a week, and asked about habits and behaviors around meals and snacks, with the goal of identifying which ED cognitions predict daily ED behaviors. Before any of this could happen though, we had to recruit participants. We sent a lot of emails out to people we knew had received treatment for their eating disorders, and some days I called potential participants individually. This was a little nerve-wracking at first, but definitely got easier the more I did it. It was also cool to interact directly with the population we were trying to help. After we had recruited participants and collected their data, we had to sort and organize the data and score the measures we sent out in the questionnaires. Finally, Dr. Levinson ran statistical tests to see if we found any statistically significant results.
After everyone in the lab had put in such hard work on this project, we finally learned what our study had found. Perhaps one of the more intriguing results was that daily restriction is predicted by how concerned one is with making mistakes during a meal. A “mistake” could refer to not following a meal plan or a deviation in an individual’s eating rituals. This finding is especially important because a potential intervention for eating disorders could be for individuals to purposely make mistakes. Being able to work so closely on a research project from start to finish has been one of the biggest highlights of my college experience. I still get excited telling my friends and family members about it, because I feel like I have never spent so much time doing something so meaningful before.
I have learned too much in my time as an RA to possibly fit in this already lengthy post. I’ve discovered things about myself, about psychology, eating disorders, graduate school, and I’ve grown because of this. My mentors have taught me new skills in statistics, talking to participants, and questioning. With so much to learn it is hard to believe that anyone would pass on an opportunity to be a research assistant. It’s an experience for which I am forever grateful, and one that has changed me for the better.
To apply to be a research assistant in the EAT lab, please go here: RA application