Undergraduate McNair Scholar plays vital role in psychology research

Emily Sargent, a senior psychology major from Fargo, is working on a research project with Robert Dvorak, NDSU assistant professor of psychology, and researchers in his laboratory.

It’s an interesting and meaningful research subject. How do emotions predict differences in alcohol use and alcohol-related problems?

That’s the central question being asked by Robert Dvorak, NDSU assistant professor of psychology, and researchers in his laboratory. An important member of the team is Emily Sargent, a senior psychology major from Fargo.

NDSU offers many opportunities where undergraduate students are directly involved in world-class research with top researchers in their disciplines. “Undergraduate research at NDSU really gives you a ‘one-up’ when you compete with other students for graduate school or an occupation,” said Sargent of her work. “It gives you so much more knowledge and experience in every aspect in a career.”

In Dvorak’s study, the researchers begin by giving prospective participants an online survey, that asks questions about alcohol use and emotional functions. From there, the researchers select participants for a formal study, where research group members carry special media players, called personal data devices or PDDs, for a period of three weeks. About 11 times per day, the device asks participants questions related to their alcohol use and their emotions. In addition, each person in the study comes to Dvorak’s lab weekly for a checkup.

During the past academic year, a total of 85 NDSU students carried the devices for the study.

“We’re getting lots of feedback and data on their emotions and alcohol use, specifically,” said Sargent, who is a McNair Scholar. The McNair scholarship program recognizes students from traditionally under-represented groups in graduate education or income eligible and first-generation students. Scholars must have a strong research interest and be determined to continue on to graduate school.

“In our study, I work directly with the participants. I explain everything to them – the contracts and confidentiality agreements. I teach them how to use their personal data devices, and when they come in for weekly checkups, I load the data into the computer,” said Sargent.

Sargent gave a poster presentation on the study during the Red River Psychology Conference hosted at NDSU in April. In addition, Dvorak and his team, including Sargent, recently published a paper in the journal Addictive Behaviors based on the collected data. Sargent and Dvorak have a second manuscript under review for publication.

“Emily is both bright and inquisitive, which are excellent qualities to have as a young researcher. She is passionate about the research being done in the lab, and has become an integral member of my research team,” said Dvorak. “She has a very bright future ahead of her.”

Sargent hopes to eventually earn a doctorate in occupational therapy and open a clinic. But, for now, she will focus on earning her bachelor’s degree and continue her work in Dvorak’s lab during the 2013-14 academic year.

“I’m stunned at how much I’ve been able to do this year, thanks to Dr. Dvorak and the people at the McNair program,” Sargent said. “It’s been quite a journey so far, and I’m excited to see where it takes me next year.”

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