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Students publish research findings with professor

12/31/14

While many professors in the sciences conduct research and publish their findings in academic journals, it’s not every day that they work side-by-side with their students in those scholarly endeavors. But that’s exactly the opportunity that Dr. Thomas Byrne gave four MCLA seniors earlier this year.

Soon, the scholarly article they co-authored, based upon experimental work that Byrne, a psychology professor, conducted with the students, will be published in Behavioral Processes.

C:\fakepath\Thomas Chiang crop.jpg“We were looking at learning with delayed consequences, and playing around with a few methodology questions that I’ve had for quite a long time. Now, with the resources and equipment to do what I’ve wanted to do – the lab space and the equipment that I have – we were able to carry it out,” Byrne said.

The research – the result of Byrne’s “maiden voyage” using new lab space housed in the Feigenbaum Center for Science and Innovation – bolstered his previous findings that learning can take place even if the consequences for doing so are delayed.

“It’s kind of tricky to see if delayed consequences affect learning,” he explained. “One thing that we were trying to figure out is what to do if the learner almost does what you’re trying to teach, but not quite. How do you deal with that? They learned to press levers, but what happens if they just touch the lever before you deliver a delayed consequence? That could interfere.”

The group included Thomas Chiang ’14 of Needham, Mass. (top right), who plans on a career in either clinical or moral psychology, and Lyndsey E. Johnson ’15 of Bennington, Vt. (bottom right), who wants to focus on behavioral analysis in graduate school, with the aim of working with autistic children.

“I really enjoyed the project as a whole,” Chiang said. In addition, “Editing the paper based on what the [journal] reviewers said about it was a really rewarding.”

C:\fakepath\Lyndsey Johnson crop.jpgThe most challenging part of the project, Chiang said, “was between finding a subject we could research and publish, and writing up the initial submission. It was a lot of work finding a subject that we could confidently say others hadn’t looked into.”

“Now I know how to write a physical article in the correct form,” said Johnson. “I also know how hard it is to get published, and all the edits that have to go on to make it so that the journal will accept it.”

The main benefit to his students, Byrne said, was to show them what an actual research project is like, and so they might discover if they enjoy that type of work enough to pursue it in graduate school and consider making it their life’s career.

“It involves everything from planning and critical thinking to team work, writing and quantitative analysis. There are quite a lot of different skills involved. Having that kind of work under your belt certainly lets an employer or prospective faculty member know that you’ve done it and you’re aware of what’s involved,” Byrne said.

“This experience was hard, but I feel like this is something that everyone should have the opportunity to do,” Johnson said. “It is something that will stay in the literature forever and be referenced for a very, very long time. This also gets my foot in the door for doing more research. I am so happy that MCLA gave me the opportunity.”