The Department of Psychological Science in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts is home to faculty actively conducting world-class research exploring diverse topics ranging from social and structural factors that shape identity to neurodiverse communities to the impact of stigma on mental and physical health, to name a few. Through LMU’s Summer Undergraduate Research Program (SURP), students had the opportunity to partake in this research and hone valuable critical thinking, analytical, process development, project management, and communication skills along the way. SURP, through a six-week program, provides a wide range of workshops, seminars, and co-curricular events and outings.
In the Department of Psychological Science, several faculty took the SURP experience further, worked collaboratively and organized weekly meetings for all Psychology SURP students. At these weekly meetings, faculty from the Psychological Science Department as well as from the School of Education (Specialized Programs in Professional Psychology) gave research talks and workshops. On the social front, students appreciated the community they built with one another as part of these weekly meetings. Given that the research process can be isolating, these weekly collective meetings allowed students from different research labs to interact with and learn from each other. Near the end of the six-week program, the students presented their research projects to each other, shared what was most valuable about their SURP experience, and reflected on how it will inform their next steps academically and professionally.
Alexandra Sturm, assistant professor of psychological science, conducts research promoting equity and access for neurodivergent youth and adults. She mentored four students who helped to expand and enhance her research in these areas.
Sarah Eberle ‘24, a psychology major and health and society and statistics and data science double minor, spent several weeks studying the experiences of autistic women, a group that is historically under-recognized, under-diagnosed, and underserved in both research and society.
McKenzie Reese ‘25, a psychology major and music minor, worked with Sturm conducting and supporting her research on the nuances of maternal health, how underlying social and economic inequities contribute to postpartum health disparities, and how programs and policies can better reflect women’s experiences and preferences. Reese also collaborated with Evan Yu ‘24, a computer science major and SURP student on the project. Yu utilized machine learning to determine which of the social determinants of health identified by Reese most impacted maternal postpartum health outcomes.
Angie Matar ‘25, a psychology major and studio arts and statistics and data science double minor working with Sturm, analyzed LAUSD demographic and standardized testing patterns over the last two decades for a collaborative project with StudyLA at LMU. Matar hopes to create a useful visualization of data representing the history of elementary schools in the LMU Family of Schools.
“The SURP allows you to focus on one project and enhance it through consistent work over a few weeks,” said Reese. “Your only job is to put in your all, to learn, and to grow.”
Sturm added, “I love that the SURP provides an opportunity for us to think and brainstorm together daily and to take a project to the next level.”
Another student, Max Urias ‘24, a psychology major, worked with Sturm to create a neurodiversity-affirming parent training to support students transitioning to TK and Kindergarten. The project is in collaboration with Kentwood Elementary, part of the LMU Family of Schools.
Negin Ghavami is an associate professor of psychological science, and her work focuses on social processes and social learning that produces social inequity or promotes social justice. Given the interdisciplinary nature of her work, Ghavami employs a wide range of research methods and conducts studies with diverse populations of children, adolescents, and adults on the internet, in the community, and schools. For SURP, Ghavami’s students worked on several aspects of a larger project which was started collaboratively with faculty at UCLA School of Education, mainly Distinguished Professor Sandra Graham. The focus of the larger project was on elementary school students’ friendships and intergroup attitudes. As part of their SURP project, Ghavami’s students worked on a systematic literature review as well as creating and modifying study materials.
Lavanya Kannan ’25, a psychology major, and Juliana Roman ’26, a biology major, helped Ghavami with compiling research on the diverse experiences of children and their friendships published from 2018-2023. The students then used the findings of this literature review to inform their work updating and modifying bitmojis to be more reflective and representative of kids today. The more accurate and inclusive avatars are useful in helping researchers to measure children’s attitudes toward each other based on characteristics such as race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and gender. Kannan and Roman also conducted an informal pilot of the bitmojis to make sure that elementary school children in fact do perceive the bitmojis as the researchers intended.
“My favorite part of the process was using the avatars we created to survey children and hear their perspectives,” said Roman.
Working closely with faculty is a huge benefit of the SURP that many students mentioned, including Kannan, who said, “Professor Ghavami was an invaluable resource who shared experience, expertise, and advice with us every step of the way. I’ve learned so much that I can carry forward in my academic and professional career.”
“The SURP was such a nice way for me to get to know the students and for the students to learn together and from each other,” said Ghavami. “I’m eternally grateful for their enthusiasm.”
Timothy Williamson, assistant professor of psychological science, is a clinical health psychologist with research interests in stress, stigma, and health. His current work focuses on developing and testing intervention strategies to reduce lung cancer stigma and improve patients’ health and well-being. It is being funded by a research grant from the National Cancer Institute, and through the SURP, several students had the opportunity to make meaningful contributions to this study.
Collecting high-quality data is crucial to ensuring that findings and research results are valid. Our current era of internet bots makes this more difficult when conducting web-based studies. Metasebiya Tefera ‘25, a psychology major, worked with Williamson to evaluate data integrity protocols and protections that improved their capability to filter our bots from completing their online surveys.
Sarah Omachi ’25, a psychology major, helped Williamson to analyze the cost-effectiveness of using Facebook targeted advertisements instead of traditional recruitment methods, like fliers, to recruit lung cancer patients into the study. “I knew I would be expanding my data analytics skills, but I had no idea I’d also be learning coding and Facebook ad management, which are so valuable in today’s digital age,” said Omachi.
Rocky Jacobs ’24, a recording arts and psychology double major, helped Williamson to determine if the demographics of the sample they recruited using Facebook targeted advertising were representative of lung cancer patient demographics nationwide. Based on what they learn, they plan to adapt their Facebook advertising strategy to increase their reach and recruit a sample that resembles the broader patient population. “Our population can be tough to reach, but I genuinely believe this research can be life-changing, which motivated me to do my best work,” said Jacobs.
Chéla Willey, assistant professor of psychological science, studies perceptual and cognitive mechanisms that underlie bodily awareness, self-motion, and self-orientation with regard to physical and gravitational space. Her research utilizes various methods to study these phenomena, including psychophysics, perceptual learning paradigms, virtual reality, eye-tracking, and neuromodulation.
Collin Griffin ‘25, a psychology major, studied cognitive load using deception. He designed an experiment where two groups read a script. One group is asked to retell it as they read it, whereas the other group is asked to lie about what they read. He hypothesizes that lying will be more mentally taxing than telling the truth and overwhelms one’s cognitive resources.
“We began SURP by reading literature on correlates of cognitive reflection in decision making,” said Willey. “Collin suggested using an interesting approach to manipulate cognitive load, which is like the RAM in your computer, only for the human brain. When memory usage on your computer is high, the system gets bogged down and doesn’t function as efficiently. He suggested asking participants to lie in order to induce higher cognitive load for testing cognitive reflection. This is a different approach that I hadn’t thought of.”
Willey also mentored Abigail Shaw ‘24, a psychology major, who reviewed the literature on the cognitive effects of mindfulness training by reading articles on the impact of mindfulness and what a mindfulness practice looks like. In the Fall semester, she will be testing how a mindfulness meditation session impacts cognitive reflection performance. This summer she will complete and submit the Institutional Review Board (IRB) application, and help train RA’s for the experiment in preparation for the Fall semester.
The SURP is an immersive program that helps students experience the whole research process and understand that while research requires passion and commitment, it can help individuals, communities, and society overall.
“If you’re a student or faculty member considering participating in the SURP in the future, do it!” encourages Williamson. “Research during the semester is like preparing a meal using the slow cooker, but research during the SURP is like using the instant pot. It is quicker and more intense but so rewarding.”