Learning through research © May 9, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications
I’m sitting in front of four flat-screen computer monitors with Kevin Fleming, associate professor of psychology at Norwich University. We’re staring with rapt attention at rippling neon lines, which represent brain activity during the first milliseconds after students flash on a picture of a Middle-Eastern man in traditional clothing. These charts show the brain paying attention to an unfamiliar image and assessing its threat potential. Understanding what happens during these moments, Fleming says, can offer useful insights into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), deaths from friendly fire and other issues bedeviling military personnel.
I glance at my watch and am amazed that more than an hour has passed while we’ve discussed what happens in fractions of seconds in the brain. Indeed, I’ve had a crash course in much more than the research Fleming is conducting with his Norwich colleague, Carole Bandy, associate professor of psychology. I’ve also had a glimpse at what has fascinated Yuliya Omarov and Katie Ammatuna, undergraduates who have just completed senior psychology theses under Fleming and Bandy.
For more than a year, Omarov has studied perception while Ammatuna has examined what makes veterans susceptible to PTSD. “It’s been phenomenal because it’s been a real, applied research project, not just learning about psychology in the classroom,” said Omarov, who has had a direct hand in producing the brain-activity charts before me.
A research assistant since fall 2006, Omarov has been instrumental in massaging enormous quantities of data, running them through a complicated program that correlates eye movement, pupil size and more with brain activity gathered from almost 50 male students in Norwich’s Corps of Cadets who volunteered to be test subjects. Each cadet spent three hours with his head hooked up to electrodes that measured electrical signals in parts of his brain and transferred them to a computer. Together with other information, the EEGs (electroencephalography signals) are synthesized by “computationally intense software,” said Fleming—his understated allusion to the 432 million data points per study crunched by the program that Omarov plays like a software maestro.
The entire lab, acquired with $130,000 in support since 2006 from the Vermont Genetics Network, “allows us to do what only huge research institutions could do just five years ago,” Fleming said.
“These non-invasive methods of studying the brain have made it possible to study brain activity and overt behavior together,” Bandy added. “The sophisticated, intricate functioning of the brain is being revealed and is a source of excitement and wonder to researchers.”
Yet much hinges on being able to get data into the useful results Omarov has helped produce. “She has an intuitive understanding of how to solve problems by telling the software what to do,” Fleming said, referring to a “brilliant solution” she devised last week by tenaciously exploring software features.
What Fleming calls “intuitive,” Omarov attributes in part to attention from Fleming and Bandy. “They explained what we’re doing and what we’re looking for so I wasn’t just hitting keys blindly,” Omarov said. “They trusted me and made me part of the process.”
It’s been phenomenal because it’s been a real, applied research project, not just learning about psychology in the classroom.
~ Yuliya Omarov ’08
One outcome was Omarov’s thesis project, which involved showing cadets a picture of a face whose eyes and mouth were upside down. She identified brain activity in a portion of the cortex as it first receives the visual information, a study she described as “a research stepping stone in how the brain processes images and perceives faces.”
While Omarov deconstructed the brain’s first steps in recognizing faces, Ammatuna worked with 28 Iraq veterans, trying to identify what might put them at risk for PTSD. At first, the project seemed straightforward. Fleming helped her select surveys that would pinpoint statistically meaningful pairings between symptoms and personal characteristics of military personnel.
Then Ammatuna ran into a snag. When she found only three Iraq veterans on campus, she thought she would have to abandon her study until her husband, an Iraq veteran, put her in touch with his army unit. She ultimately gathered so much data that she was hard pressed to tabulate them.
“But it ended up falling together [with] results that … proved my hypothesis,” Ammatuna said. She found that veterans who spent more time in service, were in higher ranks and had a confidant (a friend or family member) were less prone to symptoms of PTSD.
The results were especially rewarding, according to Ammatuna, because she believes that better information on PTSD is important for veterans. “The more we know about who is prone to developing symptoms, the easier it will be for services to be directed to those who need the most help,” she said.
The research appetite Ammatuna displays affirms the intentions of the Vermont Genetics Network, which promotes undergraduate science research. “Ideally, students at schools funded by VGN will continue on to graduate school and will one day pursue science careers,” said Program Manager Teri Hart. The network channels funds from the National Institutes of Health to small colleges; Norwich has received more than $1 million across several departments. “By getting faculty and students involved, we hope to build a culture of research,” Hart said.
That expectation is bearing out at Norwich. Omarov, a graduating cadet who plans to commission in the Marine Corps, wants to pursue a doctorate, while Ammatuna is considering a PhD in school psychology. And they are just two of the 15 Norwich seniors whose psychology research was featured at a spring campus reception recognizing student scholarship.
Meanwhile, Fleming and Bandy are partnering with a faculty member at Middlebury College and have secured a third round of funding from the Vermont Genetics Network. In the coming year, they will expand their study to veterans, aiming to compare the effects they observe in cadets and civilian subjects with those they find in military personnel back from the Middle East. After that, they want to seek funding from the National Institutes of Mental Health to conduct long-term studies on commissioning cadets who serve abroad.
“We need both teaching and research,” Fleming said. “The lab is a natural place for students because they’re solving problems in an active learning environment. When they have the opportunity, they gravitate to it.”