Brains, memory, autism – psychology student research rich and varied

The research on display by undergraduate students in York’s Department of Psychology at the annual Honours Thesis Poster Day explored everything from how learning alters brain structure to verbal memory recall and cognitive FoH Jennifer-Redwood-V2behaviour therapy for delusions.

Jennifer Redwood

About 75 fourth-year psychology students in the Faculty of Health presented the findings of their work, the culmination of a year of thesis research, in the Vari Hall Rotunda April 9.

“Each of these students has worked in the laboratory of one of our Faculty members since September, designing a research study, collecting the data and writing up a paper of their findings,” says Frances Wilkinson, undergraduate program director.

The poster day is an important event for many reasons and it just keeps getting better every year, says Suzanne MacDonald, chair of the Department of Psychology. “It gives our senior undergraduate Leah Breslow-V2students a chance to share the research that they’ve worked  so hard on for the past year with other students, with faculty, staff and with the wider University community.”

Leah Breslow

Two research posters that caught the attention of a panel of graduate student judges to win the top awards were: “Mortality in Elite Rugby Players” by Jennifer Redwood, for first place, and “Parents and Peers Matter: Stigma and Self-Stigma of Mental Illness in High School Youth” by Leah Breslow, for second place.

To Redwood’s surprise and relief, her research under kinesiology Professor Joseph Baker showed that playing rugby at an elite level, regardless of position, has a huge benefit on life expectancy. Redwood played the game for more than a decade, competing at the high school, club, varsity and provincial levels.” She ended her playing career, however, after re-experiencing sFoHPosterDay5wideshotymptoms from a concussion six months post-event, which is what prompted her research.

The Department of Psychology’s Honours Thesis Poster Day in Vari Hall

“I began to wonder what the long-term consequences of competitive participation in rugby were on health-related outcomes,” says Redwood. After enrolling in Baker’s third-year psychology of physical activity course, they began discussing the project.

“As it turns out, there is a large body of research looking at the relationship between participation in elite sport and longevity. Whereas endurance athletes tend to live longer, those engaged in power or anaerobic-based sports do not experience this benefit and might even be at an increased risk for premature mortality,” FoHPosterDayJusteenaZakiAzatsays Redwood.

Justeena Zaki-Azat (left) explains her research, “Gist vs. Detail: Verbal Memory Recall for Novel Naturalistic Actions”, to an interested student

Rugby players straddle the anaerobic-aerobic spectrum, making them interesting subjects to study when studying this relationship. “We began looking at positional differences in mortality among elite Australian rugby players – the records go back to the 1870s – and comparing the average lifespan to the general population.”

That’s how they ascertained that there was a benefit to playing elite rugby on a person’s longevity. “Interestingly, this finding directly opposes the rugby-related literature that highlights the negative aspects of participation in rugby – mainly injuries and risk-taking behaviours,” she says. “We are still exploring the potential explanations for this substantial benefit. However, we believe it might be related SarahZoharto higher socioeconomic status, improved physiological or psychological functioning, or enhanced social support.”

Sarah Zohar (right) talks about her research, “Happy Faces on the Left are Right: Emotional Cue Salience Using Chimeric Faces”, at the poster day event

Breslow, who looked at stigma and self-stigma of mental illness in youth under psychology Professor Joel Goldberg, says she was interested in examining the issue further as stigma is a “serious barrier to seeking treatment for mental illness”.

Adolescence is also the age of onset for many mental illnesses. “This is a really important population to study and understand what the potential protective factors against stigma might be,” says Breslow.

As Breslow’s and Redwood’s research shows, poster day is great practice for students as they prepare to graduate and move on to the next stage of their careers or go on to graduate school, where they will attend scientific conferences. Junior undergrads also have the chance to see what they’re preparing for in all their psychology classes.

“They will certainly have a ‘leg up’ on the other students, having already experienced what it is like to conduct research and disseminate their results in a professional way,” says MacDonald, adding, “It’s also an important day for us as a department, because it brings all of us together in one place, and we get a chance to see what our Faculty colleagues are up to…sometimes we forget what interesting HediehTehraniresearch is going on in the labs just down the hall from us.”

Hedieh Tehrani (right) describes her undergraduate research thesis, “Diffusion Tensor Imaging: Structural Plasticity Resulting from Long-Term Motor Learning”

Details of the various studies, including the two winning ones, were summarized and displayed on posters in the style typical of professional psychology conferences. Anyone interested had an opportunity to view the posters and to ask questions of the student researchers.

“The topics studied covered an enormous range of topics within psychology, including: the role of power and trust in the forgiveness process; cognition in pediatric multiple sclerosis; the effects of trauma on parenting stress; racial discrimination among Asians in Canada; and the neural substrates of dance,” says psychology Professor Jill Rich.

To view photos from the day, click here for the Faculty of Health’s Flickr page.